Timeline: The last Imperial Age (11th-13th centuries)

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1025 to 1081

Political instability and military defeat

The eleventh century marks a period of great cultural brilliance for Byzantium, which tends to obscure a disturbing deterioration in the Empire’s political and military affairs.

The Byzantine government goes into free-fall as a series of alternately incompetent or unlucky rulers follow each other in quick succession.


The Great Schism

The Orthodox Patriarch and representatives of the Pope are drawn into a bitter argument over various aspects of religious doctrine and church protocol. The dispute has more to do with the combative arrogance of leaders on both sides than any substantive argument, but ends with mutual excommunication of the Patriarch, on the one hand, and the Papal representatives on the other.

The schism permanently sours relations between eastern and western churches.


Battle of Manzikert and the fall of Bari

The deteriorating situation is brought to a head by two military disasters at opposite ends of the Empire. In Italy, the key Byzantine stronghold of Bari falls to the Normans. A more telling blow falls near the town of Manzikert, in the Armenian borderlands, when the Seljuk Turks rout a Byzantine army under the Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes.

The Seljuk Turks, originating in Central Asia, have made themselves masters of Baghdad and established a protectorate over the Abbasid Caliphate. Their victory over the Byzantines is a stunning blow for the Empire, but one from which recovery should have been possible. Unfortunately the Byzantine political scene is thrown into further disarray by the defeat and there is no effective response to further Seljuk incursions into Byzantine territory.

Over the next ten years virtually all of Asia Minor is lost to the Seljuks, who establish a capital for their new Sultanate of Rum (Turkish for "Rome") at Nicaea.


Alexios I Komnenos is crowned emperor

Alexios is the first truly effective Byzantine leader since Basil II, but he inherits a dreadful situation. The first years of his reign are marked by improvised and not always successful attempts to deal with the Normans of South Italy, who are as much a threat to the Empire in the West as the Seljuks are in the East. Alexios also has to deal with Pecheneg raiders on the Empire’s north-western frontier and with internal plots against his rule.

Alexios is finally able to defeat the Norman invasion of Greece, and scores a decisive victory against the Pechenegs. By the early 1090s his position is secure and the Empire’s precarious position has been stabilised. Asia Minor, though, is still under Turkish control.


The First Crusade is launched

Alexios still lacks the necessary military resources to attempt a reconquest of Asia Minor. He puts out diplomatic feelers to the Pope, Urban II - perhaps a strong mercenary force could be arranged to help free the eastern Christians ?

The original Byzantine request is interpreted by the Pope as a call for a full-blown holy war. At the Council of Clermont, Urban extends the Crusade’s objectives to capture of Jerusalem from the Muslims.

After a false start sometimes known as the "People’s Crusade", the crusading armies proper arrive before Constantinople in late 1096 and early 1097.

Alexios is horrified - the vast crusading army, made up of powerful western noblemen and their retinues, is hostile to the Byzantines and more of a potential threat than help to the empire. Worst of all, the crusading army includes a contingent of Normans - Alexios’s archenemies.

Alexios uses all of his diplomatic skill, and his small but efficient army, to flatter and cajole the crusaders into swearing an oath of allegiance to him. They are safely ferried across the Bosphoros and away from Constantinople.


The Crusaders capture Jerusalem

Against all sensible expectations the Crusaders reach their ultimate objective, Jerusalem, and take it amidst scenes of horrific bloodshed.

As a by-product, the crusade assists Byzantine recovery of the western coastlands of Asia Minor. Overall though, the crusaders represent a dangerous and unstable addition to the politics of the eastern Mediterranean.


Reigns of John II and Manuel I Komnenos

Alexios is succeeded first by his son John, who reigns for 25 years, and then his grandson Manuel, who rules for 37 years.

Byzantium during this period seems as powerful and as wealthy as ever - but during Manuel’s reign there are ample warning signs of trouble to come.

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