Robert Wernick, St. Simons Island, Georgia.
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The Last Caesar

Andronicus Comnenus and the Fall of Rome


“Now hark to the most wonderful tale, the most marvelous adventures that ever you heard: how Huon of Bordeaux, the good knight, the noble knight, slew by mischance the son of Charlemagne the emperor, how he traveled overseas, how with much pain and peril the fair Esclarmonde the Saracen princess for love of his sweet breath delivered him from her father’s dungeon, how he returned to sweet France to lay at the Emperor’s feet, the four molar teeth of the Emir of Babylon...”

For the grave little girl, propped up on cushions with servant-girls at her feet, the story this man was spinning out as he strummed his instrument, was not just a wonderful story, it was a family story. Her name was Princess Agnes of France, and her father was King Louis the Seventh, whose grandfather was the great-grandson of Huon of Bordeaux. And her mother was Adele of Champagne, whose grand-mother was the great-grand-daughter of Charlemagne the Emperor, and, if she could believe the servants’ gossip she was not supposed to listen to, that was the only reason her father had married her. For by that marriage he became the principal prince in Christendom, the true heir of Charlemagne the Emperor, not like those German bandits with an unpronounceable name like a sneeze who dared to call themselves Holy Roman Emperors, but the Pope who knew everything said that this was not so, and the truth was that the Hohenstauffens were direct descendants of the Devil

Princess Agnes was born and brought up in a palace on the banks of the Seine, surrounded by gardens and orchards, alongside giant white walls of the newly rebuilt Cathedral of Notre Dame. It was only a couple of generations since the ascetic Saint Anselm had been preaching to the court of France that gardens were the Devil’s handiwork because they were designed to please more than one sense at one time, with all their colors and varied scents and bird songs, and the senses were the source of sin. But for the lords and ladies of the days of Agnes’s day, the waning days of the twelfth century, the senses provided a rich new world into which they rushed with open arms and innocent joy. Life was so much better than in the murky muddy past. They loved to promenade in soft brightly imported colored satins and velvets, they loved to pluck the peaches and melons and artichokes and all the other new fruits the heroic Crusaders had brought back from the East. They smothered their food in pepper and other spices, also brought back from the East. They reveled in polyphonic music as in the sweet singing of the birds. They wept and laughed and cheered at the tales sung to them by the troubadours who had been brought to Paris by the King’s first wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (though her name was never mentioned aloud, she was a thoroughly bad woman); tales not only of the exploits of Huon of Bordeaux and William of Orange and all the warrior paladins of Charlemagne, but of love and death and enchantments in fog-shrouded Celtic forests and wild northern seas, tales of King Arthur, and of Tristan and Isolt who had drunk the magic philter of love and brought grief to themselves and to old King Mark.

For little Princes Agnes there could only have been a shadow line between real life and romance.

For though the events in the troubadours’ tales were marvelous, they were by no means incredible. The court of Louis VII was full of live men, sun-burned deep-eyed men who had spent years crusading in Syria, who had carved out kingdoms there and seen fantastic treasures and monstrous beasts and had performed deeds of valor as great as those of Roland and of Oliver. In their heavy stifling armor under the burning sun they had fought for endless hours over endless deserts, they had seen the streets of Jerusalem awash above the fetlocks in unbelievers’ blood, they had been loved by Saracen maidens and struck off the head of Saracen Sultans, they had bathed in the Jordan where Saint John baptized Our Lord, they had seen dervishes and wizards and the drugged assassins of the Old Man of the Mountain, and giant birds that walked like a man, and palaces that disappeared by enchantment.

Agnes was born to enchantment and wonder. There could have been no surprise when, at the age of eight, she was formally presented by her father the King to a delegation of hawk-nosed, thick-bearded men in jeweled robes of unimaginable richness, who had come across distant seas with gifts of great rarity, gold and ivory adornments, silks from China, peacocks, bones of saints. They had come to sign a treaty of friendship with their father, and they were going to take her away to their own land where she would be married to the boy who in a few years would be Emperor of Rome, a real Emperor, the genuine and direct heir of Augustus and Constantine, in Constantinople the richest city in the world, in the very center of the world.

There were still long negotiations to be gone through, and there was so much to prepare in the way of suitable apparel and suitable retinue for the bride, and the bride had to be coached in the duties of an Empress-to-be. But in a couple of years it was all done, and then there was the long journey through roadless country, down treacherous rivers, across stormy seas aswarm with pirates and great monsters that could swallow a whole ship at one gulf, and at length she arrived at the Golden Horn and spread in every direction in front of her was the world of the troubadour songs made solid stone and flesh.

There was no city in the world like Constantinople. As far as the eye could see, there spread palaces, churches, markets, monasteries, all gleaming white and gold.. Its harbor was a forest of masts and varicolored sails. Her father’s city of Paris on a little island in a dirty river, of which he was so proud, shrank in an instant to a collection of smoky hovels, his so-called “palace” to a ramshackle military camp.. Eight centuries after its founding, Constantinople was still virgin, no attacks and sieges by Arabs or Persians or Bulgarians or wild Russians had made a dent in its walls. And for eight hundred years the treasures of three continents had been piling up within those walls. The Sacred Palace which was to be Princess Agnes’s home was so vast, with addition piled on addition by half a dozen dynasties of emperors that it covered more ground than the whole of Paris, and it would take a lifetime to learn all the ins and outs of its halls and bedrooms and chapels and corridors and courtyards and gardens and kitchens and government offices and secret passageways and dungeons. Its columns were of rare veined and mottled marble, its walls were covered with dazzling mosaics and frescoes, its rooms were crammed with marvels brought back as booty from rival empires or made on the spot in imperial workshops. like the golden bird which sang more sweetly than the nightingale.

The palace looked across at the Church of the Holy Wisdom, the third person of the Trinity, and it was the largest and most richly decorated place of worship that ever been built. Between these two mighty buildings stretched the acres of the Hippodrome, a combination of chariot race-track and public park and museum in which the supreme masterpieces of Greek and Roman sculpture had accumulated over the centuries.

The human population was as varied as the architecture. Polyglot mobs flowed through the streets and market-places, all races and crafts and professions, monks and merchants, sailors and slaves. Blond Viking giants stood guard on the palace battlements, beardless eunuchs slunk on satin slippers down its endless corridors and stairs.

The little princess was carefully schooled for her new role in this new world.. They taught her a new code of manners, much more formal than the free-and-easy ways of France. They changed her clothes into something much more majestic. They changed her name from Agnes to Anna.

They taught her to speak and think in grammatical Greek and not the uncouth Latin dialect spoken in Paris, a non-language in which no book had ever been written while in the libraries of Constantinople you could read Homer and Aristotle, all the wisdom of the ancients in their original tongue.

They taught her the true Orthodox faith come down unscathed from the Council of Nicea, and she learned to abominate the heresies of the bishop of Rome who had blatantly added two words to the Creed and dragged all the lands of the west into sin..

They taught her the immensely complicated structure of imperial society, the stiff hierarchical patterns which had held Byzantium together since the days of Constantine the Great. Every one in her new city and her new empire stood in a precisely delineated relation to every one else, they were all arranged like steps on a mighty pyramid rising toward heaven. Or rather rising toward the representative of heaven on earth, the Emperor, Augustus, Basileus, Autocrator, descendent of that unending line of heaven-sent rulers whose great blazing eyes stared out of the mosaics on the walls of every church and palace.

She was not yet ten years old when the old emperor Manuel was dead, and his son Alexius II Comnenus was on the throne, in purple robe and boots, with the gold crown of Constantine on his head. And seated beside him, with the head-dress and jewels which were copied in stained glass on the images of the Virgin in the church windows of France, sat the little Empress, Basilissa, surrogate of the Queen of Heaven. Had ever a little girl risen so far, so fast? What more was there in life?

There was, as there always is, something missing, one defect in this ensemble of perfection. It was the new Emperor Alexius himself, a good-looking enough boy of about her own age but dull, slow-witted, unaware. He loved to hunt, but he was not Huon or Tristan for all that. It could have been little joy to see him come to the royal bedroom every night, winded and bloodstained, boasting of the boars and stags he had massacred. He took no interest in his little wife. He took no interest in running his Empire, a tiresome business which he left to his mother, the dowager Empress Maria.

Maria was a French woman herself, she had been one of the great beauties of the Orient when she was being brought up in the court of her father, the Crusader prince of Antioch .She was aging now, still incurably giddy, a compulsive intriguer with boundless ambitions for herself and her obedient dolt of a son, with no concern or affection for a daughter-in-law who would soon be a woman and might try to do some intriguing on her own. Dowager empresses figured balefully in many a story of the old days that Agnes-Anna might hear as her servants chattered among themselves: they were always trying to cling to their privileges and glory, causing trouble, civil disturbances, murders.

Uncertainty and terror might lurk in the background, but for the moment there were plenty of compensations. The great swirl of ceremony and festivity that surrounded her marriage and her coronation was enough to dazzle any one, let alone a ten-year-old girl: the gorgeous robes and jewels, the kettledrums, the clouds of incense, the torches, the rolling thunder of ecclesiastical benediction, and all the throngs of people who came to kneel before the imperial pair, the nobles, the bishops, the ambassadors, the soldiers.

Among all the throngs who fell to their knees before her, she could not help but mark out one figure more striking and handsomely manly than the rest, a tall majestic back-bearded man to whom all eyes turned when he entered any room though the Emperor might be sitting at the other end. It was, she learned, a cousin of her late father-in-law, his name was Andronicus Comnenus and he had been living for some time in gilded exile on one of his estates by the shores of the Black Sea. Why in exile? she asked her waiting-woman and with many arch smiles and sly looks they poured out to her such a series of adventures and scandals as would have driven any troubadour wild. He had slain so many knights, he had seduced so many princesses. He was fifty if he was a day, but his beard was as black and his back as straight as ever had been Huon of Bordeaux’s and it was easy to see why any fair Esclarmonde would be tempted to run away with him. He could stand calm and stately, with the dignity of age, but his flashing eyes and his animated speech revealed the fires of passion still burning close to the surface. He was King Mark and Tristan rolled into one. Was there an Isolt in sight?

No empress in those days was without at least one old slave woman who could cast charms and foretell the future. This empress had one, from the dim snowy Caucasus. She went into a trance and had visions of the Empress Anna seated beside a black-bearded giant; and of the fall of a great kingdom.

Like other prophecies recorded after the event in history books, this one was destined to be carried out to the letter. Agnes-Anna would in a very short time have this handsome cousin as her second husband when he ascended the throne as Emperor Andronicus the First. And before she was middle-aged she would be a witness to the fall of the greatest kingdom the world had ever seen, the Roman Empire.


Historians have wrangled for centuries on the question, why did Rome fall?

Everyone has his own explanation: Christianity; racial impurity; loose morals, homosexuality; the anopheles mosquito; the drain of precious metals to India leading to inflation; bureaucratic sloth; the inordinate use of lead in crockery leading to sterility and a lowered birth rate; an unfortunate conjunction of the stars.

A subsidiary question, but one which should perhaps be asked first is: when did Rome fall?

 The older textbooks used to tell it was in the year 410 AD, when Alaric the Goth sacked the city of Rome; or 476, when the last emperor of the West, the boy Romulus Augustulus was deposed in Ravenna. But at these dates, Italy was only a peripheral province half fallen into barbarism, and Rome itself was something of a ghost city, long since abandoned by the rich and powerful. The seat of imperial power, the center of glory and of the administrative offices which ran the empire, had ben transferred in the previous century to the city which Constantine the Great had built as a second Rome and named after himself on the site of ancient Byzantium. And a rich and powerful Roman Empire would remain centered there for many centuries after the first Rome in Italy had become a mass of ruins.

Constantinople remained an imperial capital until it fell to the Turks in 1453, and this date has been taken by Gibbon and others to mark the fall of Rome.

But even afer 1453 there were still men who called themselves Roman emperors and insisted they were continuing all the glories of the past. Some of them went on reigning Trebizond on the Black Sea coast for a century or so. Other prowled the courts of Europe asking alms. The imperial title of Caesar, shortened to Tsar, was taken over by the barbarous rulers of Muscovy and kept by them till 1917. And the German princeling who became King of Bulgaria shortly before World War One called himself Tsar too.

Just as it would be an abuse of language to call these people Romans, so is it to call the Rome which fell in 1453 an empire. In its last two and a half centuries it consisted of little more than one bloated city, a few miles of coastline and a great string of empty titles. It survived because its enemies were busy elsewhere.

A more logical date for the fall of Rome would be the day when it ceased to be a genuine empire, when it was no longer an independent and active contestant in the world of power politics and grand strategy. In this perspective the fall of Rome can be dated to the autumn day in 1185 when Andronicus I, the last genuine Caesar to rule a functioning mighty empire, was lynched in the Hippodrome of Constantinople.


Brave as Hercules, wily as Ulysses, potent as Priapus, bloodthirsty as Nero -- the comparisons fell easily from the pens of the Byzantine chroniclers. All through the forty-year reign of his cousin Manuel, Andronicus Comnenus was the wonder and the shame of Byzantium.

Manuel was a young man of 21 when he inherited the throne, a handsome jovial giant, thirsting for pleasure and for glory. His reign was a succession of pageants, the pomp and glitter of the empire had never shone brighter, and it was also a succession of disasters: Manuel was the grave digger of Rome.

The empire he found at his succession was stronger and more prosperous than it had been for a long time. The Muslim threat which had weighed on it for hundreds of years had been lifted by the Crusades, many rich lost provinces had been recovered, the treasury was full.

When he died, the treasury was empty, the provinces were falling away, and the state was ripe for ruin.

For Byzantines of the old school, the stern strict men who had kept the Empire running through all the calamities of eight centuries, there was no question who was responsible. It was Manuel himself.

For the first time in all those centuries the Empire had a ruler who was not a real Byzantine, not a real Roman, he had let himself be infected, and he had infected the whole state, with foreign barbarian deviltries.

For all the years of his youth, Crusaders from the West had been parading through the Empire on the way to redeem the Holy Land from the heathen. They were doing God’s business, but they were not men of God, they were big beefy brawling creatures of the wildwood, brainless heretics with no knowledge either of the True Faith or the timeless treasures of Greek civilization God had however made them the best fighters in the world, their armored charges on their ponderous horses could bear down any foe. For a hot-blooded headstrong young man like Manuel they were models to be imitated, he paid no attention to the aged counselors urging him to treat them as dangerous and unreliable allies, to be handled with extreme care and not a little duplicity, as his father and grandfather had done before him. He threw out the aged counselors and surrounded himself with western advisers, he married a western woman, he aped western ways. Instead of the traditional costume of a Roman emperor he could see in so many of the statues looking down on him wherever he went, he loved to put on chain mail and armor. Instead of the ancient and honorable sport of chariot racing, he went in for newfangled jousts and tournaments which were all the western knights thought of when they weren’t out killing Saracens or carrying off Saracen gold and Saracen women.

 Manuel had killed his share of Saracens too. He may have been a totally incompetent commander of troops but there was no denying his personal courage, he had been known to ride straight into the heart of an infidel host and strike off the head of some Turkish emir. The proudest day of his life was the one in which, at the lists in Antioch, he unhorsed two Italian knights with one thrust of his spear.

Fighting, drinking, wenching alongside this jovial brute was his cousin Andronicus, a constant companion, constantly holding his own, indeed he was the only man who could hold his own with Manuel. Manuel would clap him on the shoulders with violent affection, and hug him like a drunken bear, but fits of suspicion and jealous could pass at times through his rancorous brain. For he was uneasily aware that his cousin was more intelligent than he was, and knew better how to handle people, and command loyalty. And he was close enough in the blood line to make him a logical successor of Manuel if Manuel should for some reason disappear from the scene. The dullest and most careless emperor must have heard stories of predecessors who in the middle of the night had their eyes gouged out and were thrown into a dungeon or woke to realize that the tickling sensation round their neck was a bowstring tightening around it while in the next room their favorites and their concubines were flocking around the usurper already seated on the throne of the Caesars..

There were signs of trouble early on. Once when Andronicus was out hunting, he was surprised and made prisoner by a band of marauding Turks, and he thought that Manuel took an unreasonably long time about coming up with the ransom money. (On the other hand, once Manuel threw his sacred person into a wild drunken melee to save his cousin from being trampled to death.)

Manuel’s marriage to the French woman Maria envenomed relations. Maria and Andronicus hated each other almost from the start. Perhaps they had learned too much about each other during the eternal drinking parties in silk tents beside the Bosporus.. Perhaps Maria was suspicious that Andronicus had hidden ambitions that would interfere with her own. Perhaps Andronicus had too openly showed his contempt for this frivolous foreign woman, and she was bent on getting back at of him.

Andronicus, however, was a man who hardly needed outside assistance in getting into trouble. His restless spirit, deprived of a chance to do anything useful, turned naturally to mischief.

It was common knowledge in the gossipy court that the Emperor had seduced his own niece, the princess Theodora. The loyal subject, proclaimed Andronicus to drunken laughter at the dinner table, must follow wherever his sovereign leads, and he took to his bed Theodora’s younger sister Eudocia. He made a point of pointing out that, Eudocia being only his second cousin, his affair was one degree less incestuous that Manuel’s.

Emperors do not like to be laughed at, and Manuel curtly sent Andronicus off to the furthest frontier of the empire, to make war against the Armenians in Cilicia. It was a banishment, but Andronicus accepted it as a favor. He departed in style, accompanied by Eudocia and a troop of musicians and actors, he took charge of his army and besieged the city of Mopsuestia. He gave brilliant receptions every night in his tent city headquarters in the uplands, and every day he went down into the plains to fight the Armenians. He won no great battles, and he never took Mopsuestia. But on one occasion he single-handed put a whole squadron of enemy cavalry to flight, and stories of his bravery and panache circulated through Constantinople. Manuel grumpily called him home, where he received a hero’s welcome.

Piqued by the praise flowing his cousin’s way, Manuel decided to seek his own glory at the other end of the empire, and plunged into the perpetual imbroglio of Balkan rivalries. The Serbs, nominally subject to the Byzantine empire, had been stirred to revolt by Norman gold, and Manuel took off with a great array to chastise the Serbian prince Peroslav Uros. While he was doing so, he found further opportunities for action further north. The king of Hungary was trying to impose his brother-in-law Izyslav as king of the Russians and had gone off with all his army to give him a hand. This left his own kingdom naked of defenses and allowed Manuel to lay waste the country all the way to the Danube and come back with wagon trains of loot and a peace treaty giving the Empire more favorable terms than it had enjoyed in those regions for centuries, to be greeted with a traditional Roman triumph in Constantinople.

Flushed with this victory, Manuel decided to get rid of Andronicus once and for all, He induced the brothers of Eudocia to seek revenge for the stain on their family name. Armed to the teeth, they crept one night into the splendid tent by the shore of the Bosporus where Andronicus was spending the night in the arms of their sister. Though, says a contemporary chronicler, she had her mind quite elsewhere at the moment, Eudocia heard the clanking of their arms and called Andronicus’s attention to his peril. She proposed smuggling him out disguised as one of her maids. But he preferred to jump out of bed, reach for his sword, slash the side of the tent from top to bottom and leap through his startled foes into the safety of the night.

If private vengeance would not work, the machinery of imperial justice might do the job. It was officially announced one day that a treasonable correspondence had been found between the King of Hungary and Andronicus. Andronicus was arrested and dragged off without a trial to wait and rot in a dungeon in one of the innumerable towers of the Sacred Palace.

Being a prince of the blood, he was not too harshly treated, nor was he too closely watched. He had long lonely hours of leisure, and he employed them chipping away and loosening stones in the wall behind his bed. It took him three years to fashion an exit so cunningly that he could slip through it and put the stones back in place showing no trace of his work Ons night when all lights were out he gathered up his clothes and a basket of provisions and slipped through the wall into the dark passageway which he knew was on the other side. When the jailers came in for the next morning’s inspection, they were met by the terrifying sight of four bare walls and an empty bed.

Manuel screamed treason, the jailers were tortured and strangled, the court was in a panic. Where was the traitor gone, what was he doing, did he have supernatural assistance, who can be safe if the Devil is loose in the Sacred Palace? All the gates of the Palace and all the gates of the city were closed, every street in the city and every ship in the harbor was searched, scouts were sent to every province of the empire to look for traces of the fugitive.

They need not have looked so far. For Andronicus had made a serious miscalculation. He was confident that he knew every inch of the mazes and meanders of the Palace, all the hidden and half-forgotten passageway built by secretive emperors over the centuries, he had used them for his pranks and his amours over the years. And he had traced an exit path through them which would get him out of the Palace and out to sea before anyone woke up. But as he felt his way in the dark, he suddenly ran into a stone wall, presumably put there by some busybody official during a recent inspection tour or house-cleaning.

He was trapped in the dark and the damp, and when he had eaten what he had in his basket, he would have no choice but to starve to death or give himself up. He preferred to believe that his enemies would do something stupid that would allow him to save the day, and he was not mistaken. Crawling back behind the wall of his old cell, he heard the sounds of a new inmate being installed. He listened carefully. It was his wife. Formerly she had made him miserable with her perpetual lamentations about his infidelities. Now she was lamenting about being locked up as a hostage for his good behavior. In vain she wailed that her husband cared nothing for her, that he wouldn’t care what happened to her, that she would die of grief to no purpose, the bolts slammed shut, and she was left alone, wailing.

He waited tor nightfall, for the guards to snore. Then he gently removed the stones of his exit hole and bounded in to stand towering over her in flickering torch-light as she lay weeping in what had been his bed. She swooned. He fell to his knees, he fanned and stroked her back to consciousness, he told her that he had come back though he might easily have fled the country because he could not bear the thought of her being locked up in a dungeon for his sake, he told her that in spite of everything she remained the love of his life and that he would prove it from that night on.

She should have known better, but she believed him; women always did.

They had a passionate reunion, and then they sat up late into the night discussing plans. He gave her careful instructions, She was to say no word to any one about his return. They would spend their nights together as loving man and wife. Before dawn he would slip out into his passageway and seal up the exit hole. She would pass her day weeping and lamenting, and work up a prodigious appetite and insist on extra plates of food which she could conceal under her bed.

It was bliss of a kind, and it went on for several weeks. Nine months later a son was to be born, to the astonishment of the jailers who would swear even under torture that no human visitor had gone through the door they guarded. Long before that, Andronicus had gone exploring in the direction opposite to the one he had taken, and eventually felt his way into another familiar passageway, and this one was not walled up. Security was more lax in the Palace by this time, and he found it easy to slip unnoticed out of an inconspicuous back door and make his way to the house of a friend who could be counted on to give him a change of clothes and whatever else he needed for a long journey. Then he took off for the eastern frontier where he felt sure he could find some Turkish emir who would be only too glad to give asylum to so interesting a refugee.

He was withing sight of the rough nomansland which marked the boundary of the Empire when the weather turned desperately cold, .and he had to take shelter in a little godforsaken village. The peasants there were suspicious of this big exotic big-city figure and they reported him to the cops. The imperial organization, the bureaucracy that had made Rome an empire, was decaying everywhere, but there were still police around, and police records, and even out here at the edge of nowhere there was a Most Wanted list with the name of Andronicus Comnenus at the head of it. They pounded on him and tied him up and shipped him back all the hundreds of miles to Constantinople, and this time he was put in a deeper darker dungeon, with iron chains on his legs.

This time it took him six years to figure out how to escape.

It wasn’t too hard in the end. Languishing in his irons, he pleaded a debilitating disease. He didn’t seem like such a menace any more, and they allowed him visits of a little page boy, who would come and go at all hours, bringing him balms and medicines and wines and cordials. He was a charming little boy who knew how to get on with the guards. He would bring them jugs of wine with the compliments of his master, and one day he brought them jugs full of special herbs, and as soon as they had passed out he relieved them of their keys and walked off with them to house of Andronicus where his wife, now a free woman again, and his eldest son quickly made wax impressions. Then he brought the original keys back and tied them to the jailers’ belts and no one was the wiser.

Next day he brought more jugs for the jailers, and some extra jugs to his master, which were jugs with false bottoms containing duplicate keys and coils of rope. Then it was only a matter of waiting till the guards set to snoring again, and the prisoner, suddenly cured of his crippling ailments, unlocked his door and locked it carefully behind him. Then, holding his leg irons in his hands to keep them from clanking, he made his way down empty passageways and tunnels till he came out into an open space, which turned out to be an interior court of the Palace. Not too sure of the topography here, he had to crouch for two whole nights and days in an overgrown garden while frantic officials once more turned the palace upside down looking for him. When the commotion died down, he worked his way through new corridors and passageways to a high terrace overlooking the sea. He attached his rope to a jutting battlement and let himself down. It was a silent pitch-black night, but he knew that he could trust his friends. One of them, Chrysocopoulos by name, was waiting for him in a small boat, and he jumped in beside him.

He wasn’t quite free yet. The soldiers guarding the seawall of this section of the palace had heard a splashing noise, and they came running down with torches. A small flotilla was alerted to scour the coastline, and it soon caught up with Chrysocopoulos’s boat which had no business in these waters. Andronicus,. dungeon-pale and ragged and in chains, was obviously a suspicious character, and they grabbed him and were ready to haul him off to police headquarters. It was time to show if he had learned anything from those actors he had taken with him to Mopsuestia.

They would have been proud of him. He groveled at the feet of his captors, he babbled in broken Greek, he sobbed, he writhed. He said he was a poor suffering escaped slave, he begged not to be given back to a cruel master who kept him in chains, who beat him with iron rods .Chrysocopoulos, an amateur of the theater too, caught on quickly and played his part with gusto.. A wretched thieving treacherous ungrateful slave, he said, kicking him, and he shouted out a litany of the crimes he had committed and the corrections he was going to get. The performance went over big with the policemen, who laughed their heads off, and tossed their prisoner at the feet of his master. Give him a good whipping, they shouted as they rowed off into the night, and Andronicus could stand up, a free man again.

He was rowed to one of his town houses, where he got himself a good meal, sawed off his chains, trimmed his beard and hair, changed into respectable clothes. Then he re-embarked, to be rowed up the coast to a place where horses were waiting. All the arrangements had been made for posts along the way, and by dawn he was galloping off northward, to Russia.

And once again he was within sight of the frontier, and once again he was recognized and arrested. This time not by the police but by a band of wandering Wallachias. The Wallachians were a semi-nomadic people, survivors of the old Roman province of Dacia. It is unlikely that this particular band was moved by any feelings of loyalty to the government in far-off Constantinople. More probably they simply sniffed a handsome reward in good gold coins, more than Andronicus was carrying on his person.

He accepted his bad luck with good humor and soon was on friendly terms with his captors. He could charm barbarians the way he could charm women, with his magnificent physical presence and his lively talk As they traveled southward toward another dungeon, he kept them gaping and laughing at all his stories of distant battles and outrageous hijinks in Byzantium.

They were simple folk, and he gave them the slip by a simple ruse. He told them he was suffering from dysentery, a perpetual complaint of foreigners in that part of the world, and he had to dismount and go into the fields or bushes at frequent intervals. After a day or so, they took this as a matter of routine, and did not keep too close a watch on him when he clutched his belly and ran for relief. Once as night fell, he excused himself as usual, and went off a little further than usual, in some thicker bushes than usual. He planted a stake in the ground and threw his cloak and hat over it, and then scooted into the neighboring woods where he met a faithful servant who had been following at a discreet distance with a spare horse, and the Wallachians never saw him again. A couple of days later he threw himself into the bearish arms of a Russian chieftain, Yaroslav Prince of Halicz.

He got on famously with the Russians. This was before the dark night had settled on the Slavic soul, and in Halicz he found himself surrounded by big bouncing good-humored boors, both proud and ashamed of being barbarians. For them, civilization meant the Greeks, wily witty learned Greeks who had given them their alphabet, given them the true faith, and also cheated them outrageously and sold them into slavery when they had the chance. Andronicus was a special kind of Greek who could speak their language, joke with them, drink them under the table and match them in feats of physical endurance and raw courage. He could track down and kill the aurochs and the bear as skillfully as their best hunters. He could tell fascinating stories and sing rousing songs. And he was infinitely wise in the ways of the outer world. He could teach them how to outwit the Hungarians in negotiation and deceive the Poles with fair promises. He could teach the Russian elders the arts of Greek rhetoric, and the Russian maidens the arts of Greek love.

It was a healthy outdoor life for a man who had spent so many years in dungeons. But Halicz was not Constantinople, and he could not help pining for more civilized intercourse than he could get out of these big friendly bears. He determined to make use of them to effect a reconciliation between the Emperor and himself. He induced Yaroslave to sign a treaty with Constantinople’s envoys, providing for a two-front attack on Hungary. He personally took charge of the Russian cavalry and led it to the Danube. There Manuel was waiting with his army. The two cousins embraced, fought side by side and won equal glory at the bloody siege of Zemlin.

And so all was forgiven again. Eudocia had been packed off with a respectable husband,, and the old scandal could be laid to rest. Manuel was glad for a while to have his old drinking-pal back again, the dolce vita was resumed in Constantinople, with the added spice of ribald tales of life among the Russians.

Then the old patterns reappeared. Andronicus was too arrogant, he talked too much and too well. Manuel grew jealous again. Once again he sent his cousin off to Cilicia to fight the Armenians..

Once again Andronicus thoroughly enjoyed himself. He led his army capably, If he won no great battles, he had the satisfaction of knocking the Armenian prince off his horse. But his warlike fever did not last long: Aphrodite, says the historian Nicetas Choniates, quickly replaced Ares in his mind.

The two most beautiful women in Christendom at this time, by common report, were Maria and Philippa, daughters of Raymond of Poitou, the crusader who had become Prince of Antioch, one of the Christian states that had been set up on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean.. Maria was well known to Andronicus, she was his old enemy the Empress, Manuel’s bride. Philippa was still in Antioch, aged 21, dark-eyed and dimpled, the dream of every Christian and Saracen warrior. Andronicus was now 40, in the full flower of manhood. Leaving his troops comfortably encamped in Cilicia, he came riding over the border to Antioch, surrounded by a troop of blond page-boys with silver bows. He was wearing a costume he had designed himself, a short tunic pinched in at the waist, and silken breeches fitted tight to his sinewy legs. He was received with the honors due a Byzantine dignitary of the highest class, and he soon whipped up the social life of sleepy provincial Antioch into a frenzy. In his gaudy attire he was the center of attention at every ball and tournament, and he made a point of parading through the streets, more particularly through the street passing by the Prince’s palace and Philippa’s windows.

Philippa in her short life had seen more than her share of proud and prancing knights from many lands; but nothing quite like this one. One night she had her waiting-woman let her down from one of her windows with a rope made of silken hanging. She climbed on Andronicus’s horse and went off to life with him, openly, in sin.

Raymond of Poitou seems to have taken the situation philosophically - he knew his daughters. But at the imperial court in Constantinople there was an explosion of high-pitched rage. The sister of an Empress had been treated like a common whore. Scratch out his eyes, howled Maria, and Manuel agreed that something had to be done.

At first they tried diplomacy. They sent a handsome young ambassador to Antioch, to see if Philippa could be charmed back to common decency by some one nearer her own age. Handsome or not, he was a failure: Philippa told him that compared to Andronicus he was a scarecrow, and he had to slink back home empty-handed.

Manuel then mobilized an army to invade Antioch. There was no sense expecting Raymond of Poitou, a petty princeling, to dream of resisting a great power, and Andronicus decided it was time to decamp. He had no interest in the vain empty-headed little Philippa, he had only taken her for the pleasure of driving her sister the Empress up the wall. He gave her a perfunctory kiss of goodbye and went off to pick up the imperial taxes which had been piling up in Cilicia and Cyprus before Manuel’s agents had time to come and collect them. With this money he outfitted an expeditionary force of young adventurers, and took them off with him on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, a worthy deed as any one could see for the holy city was in constant danger of being recaptured by the infidels.

(Philippa was heartbroken. She went back to her father’s house, married an infirm old man, and soon died.)

The King of Jerusalem received Andronicus with joy. After three quarters of a century of varied fortunes, his throne had gone extremely shaky, and the selfish bickering crusading princes and knights, grown soft on eastern luxuries or eastern diseases, were not doing much to prop it up. A strong arm like Andronicus’s was most welcome. “He was a source of much comfort to us,” says Bishop William of Tyre in his chronicle of those sad years. He was showered with honors and given the city of Beirut as his personal possession.

“But,” says the Bishop, “like a snake in the grass or a mouse in the wardrobe, he made a poor return to his hosts and proved the truth of Virgil’s saying, I fear the Greeks even when they bring gifts.” Once again, it was Aphrodite upstaging Ares. Down the coast from Beirut was the city of St. Jean d’Acre, which was the personal possession of Theodora, dowager Queen of Jerusalem. She was 22, and charming, and a Greek by birth, in fact she was a close cousin to both Andronicus and Manuel. In short order she too had fallen prey to the charms of Andronicus, and she too became his mistress.

Manuel’s rage was limitless now, he wrote to the King of Jerusalem commanding him to arrest Andronicus and put out his eyes. The King hated to lose the strong arm of Andronicus, but since the alternative was trouble, perhaps a full-scale war, he was in no position to refuse, Theodora however was on the watch. She managed to intercept a copy of the letter from Constantinople, and she got it to Andronicus in time for him to arrange a flight to safety.

She came riding up to Beirut with her royal retinue to bid him a last farewell. They rode out to a city gate together, they kissed but they could not part. They rode through the gate into the fields. They kissed again but could not part. They rode on and stopped and rode again. Eventually they rode all the way to Damascus, where they were warmly received by the Sultan Nureddin.

The days were long gone when Christians and Moslems killed each other at sight in these regions. In the crazy-quilt of quarrelsome little states that made up the Middle East, there was a constant flow of renegades, pretenders, younger sons, bankrupt nobles, adventurers of all kinds, back and forth across the boundaries of cross and crescent, all of them ready at almost any moment to betray caliph or king or any master for a bag of gold or to revenge an insult to their family honor.. Every so often religious fanatics would take over, and there would be rivers of blood in the streets. Then things would quiet down, and Christian and Moslem could go on living side by side, trafficking and intriguing and betraying,.

This was one of those quiet times, and Andronicus could settle down for a while peacefully in Damascus. There he formed a friendship with a young servant of the Sultan’s, a Kurd named Salah ed-Din, which westerners pronounced Saladin. They must have sensed in each other a common contempt for the petty incompetent rulers who controlled their lives, a common nostalgia for great and glorious empires of their ancestors’ days.

In Damascus, Theodora gave birth to a son.

Manuel, still seething, turned his thunders now against Nureddin. The Sultan was not ready for all-out war with the Roman Empire, and he regretfully told the lovers that he would have to send them away. He gave them rich gifts.

Every one wept.

This pattern was to be repeated many times over the following years. Andronicus and Theodora went off with their retinue to Bagdad, to Erzerum, to Iberia, to all the kingdoms and principalities of whatever faith in the East. Everywhere they went they were received with honor, they charmed their hosts, they lived in luxury. Then the black-bowed emissaries from Manuel would arrive, and they would have to resume their journey.

What made Manuel doubly furious was that his enemy was so obviously happy. He was not only prosperous, for his successive hosts reckoned that it was worth considerable expenditure to get a genuine Byzantine prince of the blood bound to them by ties of friendship. In addition, he was in love, for perhaps the first time in his life. All his years with Theodora, he never looked at another woman. With their two children, they formed a model of domestic bliss. For a man married to the empress Maria, this was a bitter sight.

After making the rounds of the Caspian Sea and the valleys of the Caucasus, the Andronicus family finally found what looked like a permanent home when a Turkish prince named Saltuch gave them a castle in the region of Colonia in northern Asia Minor. It was near the Imperial border, and Andronicus was not above raiding his cousin’s possessions from time to time at the head of a jolly band of brigands. In his impregnable castle, he lived at his ease and meditated the state of the world.

Manuel fumed and raved. He sent out troops of soldiers, he hired private assassins. He had the Church excommunicate Andronicus on a triple count of consorting with infidels, incestuous relations with a cousin, treason against the Lord’s anointed. Andronicus haughtily replied to the excommunication with a well-documented letter comparing himself to King David who, as the Church well knew, was not only without sin in his private life, not only a rebel against his sovereign King Saul, but had gone to war under the banner of the unbelieving Philistines.

So life went merrily on for years. And then abruptly his gay career as a robber baron came to an end. The king of Trebizond, in a surprise raid, succeeding in carrying off Theodora and the children. Andronicus could not live without them. To get them back, he was ready to do anything, even to make peace with Manuel.

The fickle monarch, it turned out, had changed his mind again. He was anxious to get Andronicus back, he would be less trouble inside his dominions than outside. His problem was how to effect a reconciliation without losing face, without seeming to have been outwitted by a subversive subject. Andronicus, as he had in the past, proposed a piece of spectacular stagecraft.

Weeping tears of repentance and roaring out his shame, Andronicus surged unannounced one day into the throne-room of the Emperor. He tossed off his cloak to reveal a long chain wrapped around his body and attached to an iron collar around his neck. He threw the other end of the chain into the hands of a young prince of the blood, Isaac Angelus, and cried, “Drag me, drag me, I charge you, to the throne of the divine and benevolent Emperor whom I have so vilely wronged!” Isaac, who was considered a simpleton, hesitated at first, but eventually yielded to the passionate penitent and dragged him all across the mighty room with all lords and ladies of Byzantium looking on wide-eyed, to the foot of the throne. Andronicus wept and writhed, slobbered over the imperial feet, confessed to monstrous crimes, and begged of the one person outside of God whose mercy could extend to such a miserable sinner.

It was a bravura performance and had all the court in tears, except perhaps for Isaac Angelus who could not follow what was going on, and surely the empress Maria.

The Emperor rose from his throne of help his sobbing wreck of a cousin to his feet. Gracious he forgave him all his crimes and treasons, he personally helped take off his chain, restored all his land which had been confiscated, and all his titles which had been blotted out of the records. Andronicus was back home.

Still, Manuel had learned from experience not to push forgiveness too far He intimated to Andronicus that he would do well to keep away from the court and the armed forces, and settle down on his rich estate of Oenoe, on the Black Sea.

There he dutifully retired, with Theodora and the children. And there amid his rich vineyards and orchards he might have gone on in connubial happiness and died in his bed, leaving no memory behind but that of a picturesque rascally playboy. But History, which plays such strange tricks on all of us, had another and deeply serious role for him to play as he grew old.


In the year 1180, the emperor Manuel died, prematurely old, a broken man, with the false splendors of his rain crumbling to ruin around him. The fecklessness and incompetence which underlay his jovial bluster and his athletic prowess had steadily sapped the strength of the Empire in an increasingly dangerous world. In his last campaign against the Turks, he had le his whole army into unfamiliar mountainous territory where it literally got lost, wandered around in panicky confusion, and only fragments of it came back alive. It was a disaster of the first magnitude, for the money that might have equipped a new army had all been spent on tournaments and pageants and court ceremonials and chariot races and masterpieces of architecture .The overtaxed people were restive, the outlying provinces were in revolt, wherever you looked there were enemies on the horizon.

Recklessly irresponsible to the end, Manuel had neglected to provide for an orderly succession. On his deathbed he was still assuring his attendants that a reliable astrologer had guaranteed him fifteen more years of active life. When he died, the crown went automatically to his son and heir Alexius, a twelve-year-old boy with neither the training nor the inclination for running an empire. The field was open: who would grab the scepter from his feeble grip?

His mother the empress Maria had of course the inside track. But she had no political sense, and as a foreigner she was detested by almost the totality of her subjects. Giddy as usual, she chose as her favorite and lover and executive secretary a good-looking untalented nobleman who had inherited a high title in the court, the Protosebastos Alexius. While court and country were going through the elaborate ceremonies of mourning, this greedy pair seized the reins of command, and tried to run the country with orders issued in the name of the boy-emperor.

An opposing party soon formed. The late Emperor’s sister, also named Maria, had followed her brother’s example in making a western marriage, an Italian who had visions of sitting on the throne himself as his Maria’s consort. He spread reports, perhaps true, that the dowager Empress was intending to marry the Protosebastos and set her own aside in his favor.

Each Maria accused the other of high treason. They each had supporters, and the supporters took up arms. The volatile population of Constantinople, which counted a good million souls, was always ready for riots and scuffles. This time it lurched toward civil war.

The whole fabric of empire threatened to come apart. The Serbs and the Bulgarians were in revolt. The Hungarians to the north, the Turks to the east, the Normans to the west were all preparing to pounce on the richest city in the world. A century of relative peace and prosperity was threatening to end in anarchy. Was there a man capable of sweeping out the foreign riffraff and taking on the direction of a great state, restoring the grandeur of Rome? Disgusted by the feeble bickering women and men who claimed to rule them, people began to turn their eyes more and more to Oenoe where Andronicus, a widower now, was biding his time. Never mind his wild wanton past, all that was stale gossip now. What was important was that he was a man of stature and of action, a man with some experience in the arts of governing and the arts of war, a figure with what ancient Greeks like modern Americans called charisma.

He played his cards shrewdly, Beneath his madcap ways and lurid adventures, a cool active intelligence had never ceased to scrutinize the world around him. Unlike his cousin, who took the trappings of western knight-errantry seriously, he was Greek to the core, and he understood the Greek-speaking people who formed the core of the Byzantine Empire. These people might call themselves Romaioi, Romans, but it was more than half a millennium since one of their emperors had spoken Latin, and they had nothing but contempt for the brawny brainless Crusaders who spoke the various bastardized forms of Latin which were turning into French, Spanish, Italian and other bizarre dialects.

Foolish Manuel had opened the doors of his empire wide to the Latins, he had let a whole quarter of his capital be owned outright by the Genoese and the Venetians. He had aped Latin ways and filled his court with Latin favorites. His Latin widow had not even taken the trouble to learn how to speak Greek correctly, she and her cronies “spat better than they spoke,” went the common gibe. Her conversion to the Orthodox Church was probably a sham, people said, and she might well be plotting to turn the whole country over to the rude barons of the west and abominations of the Bishop of Rome. Wasn’t it time for a Greek Revival? If it was, Andronicus knew where a leader could be found.

Every patriot, every malcontent, every true Orthodox Greek could find a true friend in Andronicus. In a couple of years, so man had flocked to him that he was prepared to act. He summoned a council of notables at his home in Oenoe. He pulled out the text of the oath of allegiance he had sworn to the young emperor Alexius. “Like flies to festering wounds,” writes the historian Nicetas Choniates who hated him but could never stop writing about him, “his eyes flew” to a passage in which he swore to oppose any threat to the safety and honor of the young ruler. He proposed writing at once to the Patriarch and other church dignitaries in Constantinople, quoting judiciously from the Wisdom of Solomon and the Epistles of Saint Paul. Were not the boy emperor’s safety and honor indeed threatened by the evil counselors who had been placed around him by foreign intriguers uninterested in the good of the state or the people? Was it not the bounden duty of a faithful servant to try to save him?

 , . The notables at Oenoe agreed that it was. Andronicus set out on a slow journey toward the Bosporus. As it continued, it became a triumphal procession. Towns and villages emptied to hail the savior of the state. Troops sent to arrest him enlisted under his banner. When their commander Andronicus Angelus saluted him and joined his ranks, Andronicus Comnenus had a scriptural quotation ready on his tongue: “Behold, I send my messenger {in Greek, Angelos} before thy face, which shall prepare the way before thee”.

When he arrived in the city, the city exploded. Here was the savior, the deliverer from the yoke of the foreigners. The mob of Constantinople celebrated by storming the quarters of the Latins. Their houses were burned, they were hunted down and massacred in the streets. Women, children, priests, the sick in hospitals, none was spared. One hand of an Italian cardinal, the Pope’s legate, was tied to the tail of a dog and dragged through the streets behind columns of monks chanting hymns of thanksgiving. Those who could get away ran down to the docks, jumped into the ships there and set sail for Italy. On they way they ravaged the peaceful shores of Greece, burning and looting and killing in their turn.

The wave of tumult swept Andronicus through the gates of the Sacred Palace and to the foot of the throne itself. He was not play-acting remorse this time, he was giving orders, and the cowering dowager Empress and her son were forced to obey. An imperial decree was issued making Andronicus Assistant to the Emperor. Shortly afterwards the language was changed: he was now Associate to the Emperor. One way or the other, he was in charge.. .

But the boy Alexius was still titular Emperor, and as long as his mother

was in the background itching for a chance to pay off old scores, there could be no real stability at the head of the state. This was a common situation in empiires when there is a transfer of power, and there could have been few illusions about what would happen next. Somebody would have to be physically eliminated.

Andronicus struck before Maria and her clique had time to get themselves properly organized. He had only to turn against her the device that had been used to send him to prison years before. Letters were conviently discovered when they were being smuggled out of the palace. They were opened in a solemn conclave headed by the Emperor Alexius and his associate Andronicus.They contained proof of treasonable correspondence between Maria and the King of Hungary. No question of a dungeon this time. The crisis was far too great, the hour too fraught with the dangers of invasion and anarchy. Alexius was given no choice but to sign his mother’s death warrant.

He went on signing the papers put in front of him, reviewing troops, sitting on his throne beside his pretty little French bride. But not for long. No one showed signs of surprise or grief when he got the traditional reward for incompetent or unlucky emperors: a slave slipped quietly behind him one evenign and strangled him with a bowstgring.

The next day, amid an explosion of popular enthusiasm, all the city on a wild holiday jag, a new Basileus and Autocrator was proclaimed, sole ruler of the Romans, Andronicus I. Wearing the gold crown of Constantine, he called for the body of his predecessor and, if Nicetas Choniates is to be believed, kicked it around the room and addressed a savage epithet to it: “Your father was a scoundrel, your mother was a whore and you were a fool.” Then he had it thrown in the Bosporus, a fitting end for the reign of Alexius II.

Without breaking stride, he now married the little Empress Anna née Agnes, now twelve years old, whom he had been seeing regularly and charming regularly ever since his appointment as Associate Emperor. “Yes he was not ashamed,” wrote the indignant historian, “this musty-wtih-age suitor to lie down beside a red-cheeked tender maiden, he did not hesitate, all crooked and shrunken, decrepit and stiff, to pluck this unripe grape, to kiss this tender-breasted virgin, to lust after this rosy-fingered child on whom the dew or Eros was still fresh,”

There is no need to take this stream of school-book rhetoric literally. The new Emperor surely did not look crooked or shrunken to the crowds hailing him as conqueror and hero when he rode through the streets. Nor appatently to the rosy-fingered maiden who, though barely a fifth of his age, fell madly in love with him, as so many more experienced women had done before her, and remained madly in love with him for the rest of her life.

And why not? She had been forlorn little girl hitched in marriage to a graceless little boy who would plop into bed with her every night to snore and smell of freshly killed meet, and now she was a queen, the consort of the greatest of earthly rulers, a great strong man, a passionate knight, a slayer of Saracens, terrible in anger, tender in love. It was as natural for him to be her husband as for Huon of Bordeaux to be her ancestor.


Here now was the aging playboy, seated on the imperial throne

Was he just an aging playboy?

Shakespeare has been called a bad pyschogist by hisotirans who say it would have been impossible for the roistering hard-drinking pleasure-loving Prince Hal of the two parts of King Henry IV to turn overnight into the hard blunt self-righteous ruler of King Henry V.

But perhaps Shakespeare knew what he was talking on. In the pages of the Byzantien chroniclers the equally sudden change in Andronicus from debauchee to despot is recorded in dry-as-dust detail. For almost half a century his life is a record of wine, women, brawls, wild adventures. He becomes Emperor and works with determined discipline at what Louis XIV would call the craft of king. He had been in the wings all along. Now suddenly it was his chance and his duty to perform.

It was no ordinary performance. It was a failure in the box office of history, and perhaps it was a predestined failure, perhaps the decline of the Roman Empire was bound to turn to fall at about just this point in time, at the end of the twelfth century.

Yet, as Andronicus well knew, the Roman Empire had been on tje verge of total dissolution more than once before, and each time a ruthless devoted determined leader – a Diocletian in the fourth century, a Leo the Isaurian in the sixth – had turned up at the right moment to pull it together and keep it going. “There is nothing,” he told his ministers one day, “which the Emperors cannot set right, not any injustice which it is not in their power to destroy.”

With all his newfound zeal for civiz virtue, he did not entirely give up his old persona. He took a new concubine, a pretty flute-player named Maraptica. He had the portraits of the late Empress Maria retouched to show her as an old hag. He commanded a series of frescoes recording his own adventures. He spread stag-horns broadside through the Hoppodrome to remind the citizens of Constantinople that the Emperor took a continued interest in their lives.

This was only surace froth. For the first time in many decades, Byzantium had a working emperor. He was on the threshold of old age, even his superb physique would soon slow down. And there was so little time for all the work that had to be done to make up for all the failures and follies of Manuel’s reign..Hour after hour, day and after day, he stalked the halls of his palace, tugging furiously at his still black beard as he summoned ministers to account, signed decrees, barked out orders. The future of Roma and the civilized world was at stake, and he brooked no delay.

There was corruption all through the government administration, as he himself had often had occasion to see and profit by in the past. He knew all there was to know but diverting the tax renues into private hands. He summoned the tax-colllectors to his throne and he told them, “You have the choice between ceasing to cheat and ceasing to live.” A breath of probity blew suddenly through the revenue service, and prosperity began to return to plundered provinces. “He who rendered unto Caesar the things that were Caesar’s,” said a chronicler, “was left unmolested; he was no longer deprived, as had previously been, of the last shirt from his body, nor ws he tortured to death. For the name of Andrionicus acted like a magic spell in drivng away the greedy tax-collectors.”

Reform was one thing, and he could make a good start at it. But the greater dangers to the state were extenral, and they were many which had to be faced all at once. Byzantium, the richest city in the world, lay at the center of a circle of wolfish enemies.

For centuries the Mediterranean , that is, roughly, the world of western civilization, had been in uneasy balance between Moslem and Christian super-states, the Caliphate at Damascus or Bagdad or Cairo, the Eastern Roman Empire at Constantinople; each surrounded by a ragtag collection of tributary or hostile smaller powers. Both empires were now in a period of decline if not of eclipse. Semi-barbarian peoples on the fringes of the world had formed themselves into politico-military entities which were implanting themselves ever more firmly on the map.

Byzantium could no longer to pretend it was the center of the world. It was a frontier state, the bulwark of Europe against the Turks who had come storming out of central Asia and were now gnawing at the Byzantine heartland of Asia Minor; and it was threatened at the same time by the new nations that had slowly emerged out of the ruins of the western Roman Empire and were now trying to take over the Middle East, as well as by the new menace of the wild Scandinavian pirates, Vikings, Normans, who had already taken over such bulwarks of the Empire as Sicily and southern Italy.

Andronicus’s adventurous life had brought him into contact with all these potential enemies, and he knew that he had little time available to strengthen the defenses against them. He knew how far the rot had gone at home. The long lazy reign of Manuel had seen a steady weakening of the emperor’s authority. More and more power had been finding its way into the hands of the landed nobility, each petty lord grabbing money and privileges and becoming more and more an independent ruler on his own little patch of soil, fighting his private wars, raiding neighboring territory with no regard for the common weal, The Emperor’s power diminished with every mile’s distance from Constantinople.

Andronicus saw only one simple revolutionary cure for what he saw as a fatal illness of the state: exterminate the nobility.

No sooner decided than put into application. He found a masterful police chief named Stephen Hagiochristorites, a dark spidery man who had built up an unrivaled collection of spies, double agents, provocateurs, Conspiracy came naturally to Byzantine courtiers, deviousness and double=dealing had been counted as Greek virtues since the days of Odysseus. There was probably not a single noble at the court who had not at one time or other taken part in some light-hearted or deadly serious plot. With Stephen Hagiochristorites and his torture chambers to smoke them out, these plots now proved to be fatal to an increasing number of representative of the best families in the Empire. There were denunciations, arrests, speedy trials, remorseless sentences. The dungeons of the Sacred Palace were regularly filled and as regularly swept out. The greatest officers of empire did not know when they might be dragged shrieking from the beds to face the dread inquisitor. Some were impaled, some were burned alive, some were blinded and tied to the backs of asses which were driven off toward the country of the Turks.

Contemporary historians, all of them members or hired hands of the aristocratic class, have no words harsh enough for Andronicus, the bloody tyrant, the ogre, the mass-murderer. Historians of our own day are divided in their judgment Some think his brutal course was the right one, the only possible way to save the day. A mortal disease needed a radical remedy. In the long bloodstained history of Byzantium, where the streets had run red because of the quarrel, which split both church and people asunder, over a single letter of the alphabet (homoiousion against homoousion), a few judicial murders more or less hardly counted for much. The vital thing was to save the state, If only there was time.

That is just the point, say other scholars, there was no time. Neither was there the money, to raise and train new leaders for the forces that would have to fight the prospective invaders. The only troops ready to defend the shrinking frontiers of empire were the private armies of the nobles who were being done to death spectacularly every day. They were not very good armies, but they could make things uncomfortable for an overconfident eager invader. Only twenty years before, a host of pillaging Normans had landed on the Adriatic coast and laid siege to what is now Durès (Durazzo) in Albania. They never took the town and were eventually driven off with great loss of life. Now in August 1185 the Norman king William II of Sicily collected another gang of adventurers and sent them to sea again, ostensibly to revenge the massacres in Constantinople which had accompanied Andronicus’s return. This time they landed again in Albania, and this time there were no local troops to oppose them. They cut like a knife through butter through the mountains of northern Greece and fell upon the great port city of Thessalonika, the second city of the Empire. The general in command of the garrison was not up to his task and the city fell and was plundered with the usual Norman brutality and efficiency. The archbishop Eustathius, a learned commentator on Homer, was there and saw them and could hardly believe what he saw. They were hardly men at all, he said, they were worse than beasts; they tortured young and old, rich and poor, for the fun of it; they left no object of value untouched in any house or hovel. They danced drunkenly on the altars of the churches and they fried their fish in the miracle-making oil they scooped out of the coffin of Saint Demetrius,

Rape, pillage, humiliation - the word spread rapidly to Constantinople, only a couple of days’ sail to the west, and started a panic there.

Andronicus reacted with calm vigor. He knew that the Norman force was too small to pierce the vast battle-tested defenses of Constantinople. He planned to lure them into a rash assault on walls they could not hope to scale and strike them such a counter-blow that the survivors would think twice before ever coming back for more. A spectacular victory right now might discourage other enemies and win him some precious years for his plans of reform. Plucking more furiously than ever at his beard, he rushed around the walls putting everything in proper order. He ordered a few more traitors put to death.

Still, he was vaguely uneasy. Tears had been seen to fall from the eyes of a wonder-working portrait of St. Paul, a portent not to be taken lightly. And an old blind soothsayer with a good track record in prophecy had been consulted, and he advised the Emperor to beware of a man named Isaac until the night of September 14.

Isaac? The only Isaac he could think of who could conceivably cause trouble was his cousin Isaac Comnenus, who was the governor of Cyprus and was reported by the imperial espionage agency to be scheming to make that island an independent kingdom with himself as king. But this Isaac had plenty of troubles of his own with acquisitive Crusaders - and indeed he would shortly be driven naked from his bed while his whole island was occupied by the army of the English king Richard the Lion Heart, leader of the Third Crusade. Anyway, Cyprus was a long way off, and there was no possible way of getting from there to Constantinople by September 14.

Thus, there seemed nothing to do on the supernatural front, and everything was in good shape on the military front: the walls were manned, the great chains were across the harbor entrance. The Greek fire – the secret weapon which had saved the city from attack so often in the past – was stored in its magazines. Spies reported that the Normans were still sorting out the loot of Thessalonika and couldn’t arrive for another two days or more. It was time to relax a little, and Andronicus decided to go off for a gay weekend in the country with the Empress Anna and Maraptica and a crowd of congenial friends.


Stephen Hagiochristorites, the career cop, was now the man in charge of the capital, and in his plodding bureaucratic way he turned up early in the morning at his office while his master was off enjoying himself. As he riffled through his files, he couldn’t help worrying. He was not satisfied with his master’s insouciance. It is all very well for great men to look at the big picture and leave the troublesome petty details to their subordinates. The subordinates are responsible if anything goes wrong with any those details. The tears on the icon of St Paul, for example, or the warnings of the soothsayer. Isaac, the 14th of September. Perhaps there was another Isaac in the great empire than the one in far-off Cyprus. Yes, there he was in the files – Isaac Angelus, the same chuckle-headed youth who had been cast in the role of dragging Andronicus across the floor in his great repentance scene before Manuel’s throne. This Isaac, it was true, was a pure zero, a half-wit of whom even a half-witted conspirator would never dream of trying to make use. All he cared about was horses and hunting. Whenever his name was mentioned, serious people laughed.

Andronicus would have laughed too and said to leave this blue-blooded imbecile alone, but for Stephen Hagiochristorites, brooding in the palace, no detail was too small to be disregarded, no stone too small to be left unturned. Let’s get this Isaac out of the way, he reasoned. Nobody will miss him, and if nothing untoward happens before nightfall, both the soothsayer and the police chief might claim to share the credit for saving the Empire from a catastrophe.

Besides, it was already September 14 and would be for several more hours, and you couldn’t be too careful when soothsayers were involved.

He put his cloak around his shoulders and went off at once for the palace of the Angelus family.

Stephen Hagiochristorites did not have the habit of going riding on errands of mercy. When Isaac Angelus saw this dark figure of doom come clattering into the courtyard followed by his retinue of raw-boned torturers and hangmen, he went into a blind panic. He might have thrown himself out of a window. Instead, the panic took the form of a blind courage. He ran out of the house as Stephen was dismounting, drew his sword and ran him through and through, then pushed his way through the startled entourage and fled wailing through the streets to the church of Santa Sophia. Dwarfed in that airy immensity, ,dazzled by all the blaze of color on the walls, he staggered up to the main altar and fell forward to clutch it, babbling out a claim to sanctuary.

A banal enough episode in the turbulent and melodramatic history of Byzantine intrigue. On an ordinary day, Isaac Angelus would not have lasted long at the altar, and more than Joab did at the altar of the temple of Jerusalem in the days of King Solomon. He would have been expeditiously seized and beaten and dragged out into the street and blinded and hacked to pieces and dropped into the ever-ready Bosporus.

But this was not an ordinary day. The Emperor was off at his house-party, and the chief of police was dead. .

With no one around to give orders, nothing was done. The great mechanism of state security stood still, waiting for some one to put it in motion. In the meantime the incredible rumor went flashing through the streets and bazaars: Isaac Angelus, of all people, had defied the Emperor, he had killed his all-dreaded right-hand man. And he was still alive, he was getting away with it. Surely God must be on the side of Isaac Angelus.

From their hiding-places all over the city, the enemies of Andronicus came blinking out into the open air. They sniffed the air and found it to their liking: a wind of riot was ready to blow. People had been muttering about the tyranny of Andronicus, now they were muttering about his incapacity to defend them. Wasn’t he responsible for the dreadful things the Normans were doing in Thessalonika? Now the Normans might turn up at any moment, killing and raping and burning, in Constantinople, and what was this unworthy emperor doing? He was carousing with his bullies and his strumpets out in the country.

The mutters swelled to cries of sedition. Crowds began to drift noisily toward the Church of the Holy Wisdom. As they grew in numbers, they grew in confidence, and soon the church became an armed camp while agents of mischief spread through the city spreading alarming rumors and calling for revolt. All night long mobs swarmed through the streets, while in flickering torchlight orators cried out the sins of the bloody Emperor and demanded blood in return.

And all night long there was no reaction from the Sacred Palace where everyone was taking advantage of the long weekend. By morning the mob was getting itself organized, the riot had matured into a revolution.

There were plenty of seasoned conspirators still at large to provide a framework for it. There was no single leader in the beginning, but during the night some seasoned heads got together and provided one. As the sun rose in the heavens, the Patriarch of Constantinople appeared in full regalia, leading a majestic procession, in front of the church. The crowd was hushed, the gates were unbarred. The Patriarch marched down the mosaic floors to the altar raised the wretched figure still cowering there, placed a gold crown on its head and hailed it as Isaac the Second, Augustus, Basileus, Autocrator.

With legality now on their side, the conspirators streamed out in all directions to take command of the strategic points of the city. The prison gates were broken down, and Andronicus’s enemies, such as of them as had survived, came roaring out with cries of vengeance on their torture-twisted lips. The church bells rang, and the mob ran up and down the streets, crying, Death to the Tyrant!

The tyrant came back in the course of the morning, probably with a terrible hangover, and found he had lost his capital. His brain cleared at once, he leaped forward to take command of things as he always had. He could see the situation at a glance: the day was lost, as far as Constantinople was concerned. His friends had abandoned him or were in flight. The mob had already broken down the palace gates and was looting the imperial apartments. He had a last gesture of defiance, throwing javelins from the palace roof into the thick of mob. But his mind was already busy on plans to redress the situation.

Nothing was lost really. He had been in worse situations before. He ran to his private apartments, stripped off his imperial robe and plucked a barbarian costume from the wardrobe which he always kept well equipped with possible disguises, and he took to his heels, with both Anna and Maraptica running behind him. He had up-to-the-minute information of the current layout of secret passageways, and while his enemies were ransacking the palace looking for him, he slipped out through a back door probably built for just the present eventuality.

Before dark he was out of the city entirely, and had reached a little port where he could commandeer a sailing ship. He boarded it and ordered the crew to set sail at once for Russia, where he was always sure of a bear-hug welcome and a chance to survey the scene and recoup his fortunes.

Nothing was lost. He was not too old to fight and to win battles, he still had friends he could rely on, he still had the will and the luck and the skill to outwit his dim-witted foes. He could raise an army of cheerful barbarians and come back in triumph to Constantinople, where the crowds who were now shouting Crucify him! would have had time to realize that Isaac Angelus was a disaster that the only man who could save them was their true emperor Andronicus. Sail on! he shouted to his crew.

But they could not sail on. The wind blew steadily from the north, the ship could not get out of the Bosporus into the Black Sea where it could maneuver. The good fortune that had always come to his rescue in his most desperate moments would not come now. He raged impatiently over the deck, shouting commands, but he could not command the wind. There was nothing bu a little headland between them and the open sea, but they could not get around it.

And now a galley was coming up behind them, its oars beating in double time. There were scores of armed men on board, and they were all men whom Andronicus had condemned to die. They came relentlessly up, and while the north wind howled they boarded the little sailboat, and for one more time in his long life rude hands seized Andronicus and bound him hand and foot and dragged him away.

Even now, bound and kicked and beaten, he was not ready to give up. His nimble tongue had often saved him when his strong right arm could not. His dramatic talents were undimmed. “Still,” says Nicetas Choniates, moved to admiration in spite of himself, :”still he remained the subtle ingenious Andronicus. Hr recalled to them of what illustrious stock he came, how formerly fortune had smiled on him, and his past life, even when he wandered homeless through the world, had been worthy of being lived, and how his present memory deserved to arouse their pity. And the two women who accompanied him took up his tale of woe and made it sound still more lamentable.”

All in vain this time. The men who were beating him now were men who had their limbs twisted, their teeth knocked out, their ears lopped off, hot rods stuffed up their anuses, by his agents, and any tears they had to shed were not for him. While he orated and his women wailed, the galley turned and rowed back swifter than ever to the Golden Horn, and Andronicus knew that this time he was going to die.

Wrapped around with iron chains, he was hauled into the presence of the new Emperor, giggling uncertainly on his throne. He was thrown to the floor, where each and all could kick and trample and spit on him. The widows and daughters of men he had sent to their deaths came to mock him and claw him and pull out handfuls of his beard and hair. Then professional executioners came in, to cut off his right hand and gouge out his right eye. Then he was hoisted on a mangy camel and paraded through the streets to the Hippodrome, where he was strung up by the heels between antique statues of an ass and a dog. And the people of Constantinople were invited to come make merry around the bloody wreck of what had been their beloved ruler.

The fiesta went on for hours. They stoned him, they smeared him with dung, they poured boiling water on him and poked and punched and scratched and played tricks all day long on the old athletic body which somehow would not give up the ghost through it all. To all the taunting and insults he returned no answer, only opening his mouth twice. Once he said, “Lord have mercy on me.” and he once he brought out his last quotation from the Bible, “Why will you bruise a broken reed?” Finally, two Italian sailors from Pisa, who had strolled up from the docks to join in the fun, testing the sharpness of their swords on his body, or perhaps in pity for the mangled old man, struck too deep and he died.:

In his last convulsion, the stump of his right wrist flew upward to his face, and a merry Greek cried out, “Sill thirsty for blood, Andronicus?”

It was the last good joke, and for that matter the last carnival, the capital of the Roman Empire was to know.



Now hark to the most marvelous deeds, the greatest adventures that ever you heard. You must know that there was in Constantinople an Emperor, and Sursac was his name...

This is Geoffroy de Villehardouin speaking, an old man coughing out his life in his drafty castle in Champagne, dictating to a sleepy monk the story of his youth, rising half out of his bed every so often with an Ah Diex! Ah God, as he recalled the sights of all those red sails when they gathered in the lagoon of Venice, or all the fire and blood and spoils when they took Constantinople.

Ah Diex! it was beautiful to see, and he poured it all out, it became the first masterpiece of French prose, and in it you will find all the richness and innocence and horror of 1204 when Villehardouin and his fellow ruffian noblemen of France destroyed the Roman Empire in what was officially called, and is known to historians to this day as, the Fourth Crusade.

The Empire had gone creaking on, for nineteen years after the death of Andronicus, on the sheer momentum of routine, while its enemies gathered round for the kill.

A few days after Andronicus's death, the Normans who had finished the sacking of Thessalonika turned up at the gates of Constantinople, and, just as Andronicus had foreseen, they were badly beaten and ran away to lick their wounds. Isaac Angelus sat on the throne for ten comparatively uneventful years. (If the manuscripts of Villehardouin's manuscripts call him Sursac, that is a clerical error, it should read Kuriac, shorthand for the Greek word Kuriakos meaning "lord" which was one of the manifold titles of the Emperor. The illiterate Latin barons rarely bothered to learn the correct names of the rulers of the lands they carved up for plunder.) While he reigned, the imperial bureaucracy went on working at its desks in its usual way. Commerce flowed in and out of the harbor, customs were collected, criminals were sentenced, treaties were signed, bishops were appointed, the machinery of state went on turning as if no one knew the spring was broken. The law providing that a married man could not become a bishop unless his wife signed her consent and agreed to enter a convent -- a tenet of the Orthodox faith from that day to this was promulgated under Isaac's signature in 1187.

Whether Isaac was aware of what he signed cannot be known. He went out hunting every day and probably was not interested in anything else. One day he came back from the hunt and discovered that his brother Alexius, whom he had ransomed from the Turks for a colossal treasure a few years before. had conducted a palace revolution and taken over the throne for himself. Isaac was seized, bound, kicked,, smeared with dung, and his eyes were cut out. He was thrown into one of the dungeons preserved for such occasions, and he might have died there if it had not been for the restive adventurous nature of his son, another Alexius. This Alexius managed to escape, and got off to the court of his brother-in-law, the Holy Roman Emperor, reigning somewhere in the wilds of Germany.. In the name of humanity and justice he appealed to the noble lords of the West to repair the outrage and put his father, the pitiful, the blind, the anointed of God, back on his throne.

The lords of the West were, as it turned out, very susceptible to these pleas. They had come forth in their hundreds and their thousands, to join the Fourth Crusade. They had gathered on the plains between Verona and Venice the greatest army the world had ever seen, and they were about to sail in the greatest navy ever assembled, from Venice to go to Syria and reconquer the holy city of Jerusalem which the infidels under the command of Saladin, Andronicus’s old friend, had reconquered from the Crusaders thirty years before.

Though their talk was all of holiness, they had other things on their minds as well. For generations, the kings and barons of France and Germany had been traveling through Constantinople on their way to fight in the Holy Land, they had bargained and quarreled with the rulers of the Empire, been bribed by them, seduced by them, at times come to blows with them. As they looked over the white towers and the crowded streets, the incrdeible profusion of marble and porphyry, gold and bronze and silks and jewels, they must have often exclaimed to themselves, as the Prussian general Blucher would do six hundred years later when he saw London for the first time while celebrating the fall of Napoleon, “What a city to loot!”

There is a twelfth-century poem called The Journey of Charlemagne to Jerusalem and Constantinople, written in Anglo-Norman. The subject matter is wholly mythical, Charlemagne never set foot in either city, but as a mirror of contemporary attitudes, it is surely accurate to the highest degree. Charlemagne, in this work,, and his twelve peers are housed in the palace of Hugh the Strong, Emperor of Constantinople, and while polish off many jugs of good red wine they sit up all night jesting and spinning tales while a spy of the Emperor watches and listens nervously through a peep-hole. They talk partly of the riches of the great city – “Ah, would God that our lord Charlemagne had won such wealth on the field of battle” – and partly about the stupendous things they intended to do there. “Give me the Emperor’s daughter one night,” says the paladin Oliver, “and if I don’t have her a hundred times before dawn throw me to the dogs.” “Give me a horn,” said the paladin Roland, “and I will blow it so hard the Emperor’s furs will fly off his shoulders and his beard off his chin.”

Says the spy to himself after each such speech: “The Emperor must have been mad to put up people like this in his house,” ...

Villehardouin tells how the great fleet with all its banners and horses sailed down the Adriatic from Venice and more or less by accident found itself involved in an assault on the Christian city of Zara. Some of the knights and churchmen aboard protested that this was not the object of their Crusade. But the wily old blind doge of Venice knew how to persuade Villehardouin and his companions, after all he had put up most of the money for this Crusade. So the timorous souls, “those who would break up the host,”: were outvoted, and Zara was stormed and pillaged. Perhaps, the Crusaders began to think, it would be better to forget about dusty Syria for the moment and go on to Constantinople, where the booty would be far richer than at Zara. To those who would break up the host to go on to Syria, there was always an answer in the form of a question: Would you let poor blind Sursac die in his dungeon?

A few benighted idealists went off to die of the plague or Saracen darts in Syria, but the bulk of the immense fleet turned around the south o Greece and came up through the Dardanelles and laid siege to Constantinople. Well armed with the most modern weapons, well led, and highly motivated, the Crusaders succeeded where so many other mighty hosts had failed, they broke through the 800-year-old-virgin walls, they took the city and they looted it

They looted it with passionate efficiency, the way the Empress Anna’s father Louis VII had dreamed of doing when he was a leader of the Second Crusade, and as he might have done if his co-leader the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa had not accidentally drowned on the way.

Never had any one seen so much loot. Palaces, provinces, heaps of gold, works of art, slaves, women, were all available in fabulous quantities, and it took weeks to count them and to divide them up.

(It did not take much longer to squander it all. Of all the riches taken away from Constantinople then almost the only still intact are the four horses that now stand overlooking Saint Mark’s square in Venice.)

A French baron was installed on the throne on which Andronicus had lately sat. Others carved for themselves duchies and marquisates and counties and baronies out of the corpse of empire.

Some of them recalled that the Princess Agnes of France, with whom they had perhaps played in her father’s gardens when they were all little children, was the sister of their sovereign lord back home, Philip II called Augustus, and herself had only yesterday queened it over the lands which were now making them rich and glorious. Having washed the blood off their hands and put on the brightest robes filched from the imperial wardrobe, they came to pay their humble respects to her in proper aristocratic fashion in the home where she had been living for nineteen years, alone with her grief and her pride.

They might have given themselves the fanciest of titles, for her they remained vassals, unworthy blasphemes heretic vassals who had profaned the throne of the Lord’s anointed. She cut them dead, and they had to shuffle back in undignified confusion to be mocked by their fellow knights.

When all else was lost, love and land and power and glory, snobbery remained to make a last defiant proclamation that there had once been a Roman Empire.

©2003 Robert Wernick

Robert Wernick
St. Simons Island, Georgia 31522