Alexius I Fatti

Alexius I (ca. 1048-1118) was Byzantine emperor from 1081 to 1118. He saved the empire from almost certain disaster and led it in its first encounter with the Crusades.

Nephew of Emperor Isaac I Comnenus (reigned 1057-1059), Alexius was raised by his strong mother, Anna Dalassena. Already as a young man he distinguished himself for his great military achievements. Surviving the regime shifts, Alexius became the strong right arm of the successive emperors and put an end to a series of rebellions. Driven to rebel, he secured the support of other aristocratic leaders and was proclaimed emperor on April 4, 1081.

Saving the Empire


When Alexius took power, the empire seemed on the verge of collapse. Internal affairs was in chaos, and external enemies were closing in for the kill. Asia Minor, the former heart of the empire and the main source of manpower and revenue, was almost lost after the disastrous battle of Manzikert (1071) exposed it to devastation and occupation by the Seljuk Turks. In the north, the Asian Patzinaks (Petchenegs) threatened the Balkan borders. And Robert Guiscard, the leader of the Norman bandits who had forged a powerful state in southern Italy, was preparing to attack the empire in search of a great Eastern kingdom.
First Crusade

Alexius turned around to the sad situation in Asia Minor. He realized his need for greater military strength, and at the same time he was eager to work with the papacy to end the schism of 1054 between the Eastern and Western Churches. For this reason he sent appeals to the Pope and others, exhorting Westerners to help him fight in the East. Driven also by other, specifically Western motivations, the Latin response was the First Crusade. Desiring mercenary auxiliaries,

the Byzantines were instead faced with a massive outpouring of uncontrolled and irresponsible military adventurers. The initial rabble, under Peter the Hermit, arrived in early 1096 and rushed through Asia to be massacred by the Turks. The main crusader army arrived during the following winter.

In June 1097 the Crusaders and the Byzantines took Nicaea from the Turks together. But a malaise grew between them and the Crusaders plunged alone into all of Asia Minor towards Syria. The emperor’s inability to help them in the siege of Antioch in 1097-1098 completed their departure. Alexius, however, remained determined to assert his sovereign rights over the principalities that the crusaders established in the Holy Land after the conquest of Jerusalem in 1099. Meanwhile Bohemondo, Guiscard’s ambitious son, took possession of Antioch and returned to Italy to organize a new invasion of the Balkans. In the battles that followed from 1104 to 1108, Alexius defeated Bohemond and brought him to an end. But the death of Bohemond in 1111 left unresolved the question of Alexius’ claims to Antioch and other Crusader territories, a problem that would be resolved by successive Byzantine emperors. In the last decade of his life, Alexius renewed his campaigns against the Seljuks, and a victory in 1117 won back at least some parts of Asia Minor for the empire.

The key notes of Alexius’ internal policies were the careful management of limited resources and the cunning conversion of liabilities into strengths. The kingdom he had left behind was no longer the greatest power of Christianity, as it had been a century before, but was on the road to a real recovery. Before his death, on August 16, 1118, Alexius succeeded in making a clear transfer of power to his son, John II Comnenus, who would prove to be perhaps the noblest and most admirable ruler of the entire dynasty.

More readings on Alexius I

Alexius is the idealized subject of a biographical story of his daughter, Anna Comnena, The Alexis of Princess Anna Comnena (trans. 1928). The main scientific study of Alexis is in French: F. Chalandon, Essai sur le r’ne d’Alexis I Comm’e (1900). Chalandon’s opinions are summarized and translated in his story in La storia medievale di Cambridge, vol. 4, edited by H. M. Gwatkin (1923). For basic information see G. Ostrogorsky, Storia dello Stato Bizantino (1940; trans. 1956; rev. ed. 1969), and La storia medievale di Cambridge, vol. 4 (2d ed. 1966), part 1, edited by J. M. Hussey.


Other biographical sources

Comnena, Anna, The Alexis of Princess Anna Comnena: being the story of the reign of her father, Alexius I, Emperor of the Romans, 1081-1118 AD, New York: AMS Press, 1978.