HIS101 logo 11th Century Byzantine Politics
by Jim Jones, West Chester University of Pennsylvania (c.2012)
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When something is described as Byzantine, it is usually something that is complicated and full of deception. This timeline of Byzantine politics in the 11th century CE shows where the expression comes from, and makes one wonder how anyone was able to rule the Byzantine Empire effectively. In brief, there were continuous disputes between those who favored the military and those who favored civilian leaders (i.e. bishops and the Church). Byzantine politics were also influenced by individual greed, the presence or absence of competence, and pressure from outside forces, notably the Seljuk Turkish military leaders of the Abbassid caliphate.


1025-1028: Constantine VIII was emperor. He distrusted the military, and used his position to reward his friends. Near the end of his reign in 1027, the barbarian Patzinaks were driven out of Byzantine territory in the Balkans, north of the Danube River.

1028-1050: During this period, Constantine VIII's third daughter Zoë held real power while each of her three husbands held the office of emperor.

1028-1034: Romanus III was sixty years old when he married Zoë. He was "pro-military" compared to his predecessor, and he permitted the persecution of the Syrian Monophysites (Christians who rejected the divinity of Jesus), who then fled to Muslim lands where they helped to ignite Seljuk expansion later in the century. During Romanus' reign, a Byzantine army was defeated by Muslims in Syria in 1030, but by 1032, a "combined Byzantine-Ragusan fleet" drove the last of the Muslim pirates out of the Adriatic Sea.

1034-1041: Zoë's second husband, Michael IV, was born into a non-noble family, and he faced much opposition from Byzantine leaders when she married him. Michael IV tried to control the military by using Scandanavian mercenaries and a civilian bureaucracy controlled by his brothers (all able men). In 1034-1035, Byzantine fleets led by a Norseman named Harald Hardrada and manned by Scandinavians defeated Muslim fleets along the Anatolian coast and raided along the North African coast. A Byzantine army that employed Scandinavian mercenaries landed on Sicily and conquered the Muslim city of Messina in 1038. The Byzantine army also suppressed a revolt in Bulgaria and incorporated it and its church into the Byzantine Empire in 1040.

1041-1042: Michael V, a "favorite" of Zoë, attempted to gain sole power by shutting Zoë away in a cloister, but the Byzantine nobility rebelled against him and imprisoned him in a monastery instead.

1042-1050: Zoë's third husband, Constantine IX, was an opponent of the military. During his reign, funding was shifted away from the military, so the defense of the borders was neglected. Although the Byzantine empire had some military successes during this period, most of the benefits were reserved for civilian officials who governed the new territories. Different generals revolted in 1043 and 1047, but they failed to dislodge Constantine IX.

1050: Zoë died and Constantine IX ruled on his own until 1054.

1051: Byzantine forces pushed the Patzinak barbarians farther north by expelling them from Bulgaria after years of struggle.

1054: Empress Theodora, Zoë's older sister took over. She was capable, but already more than 74 years old. That year, Normans conquered part of Byzantine-controlled southern Italy with support from Pope Leo IX, after Theodora failed to send aid to the Byzantine patriarch of southern Italy, Michael Kerularios.

1056-1057: Michael VI succeeded Empress Theodora, but was overthrown almost immediately in a revolt by Anatolian feudal (Asia Minor military) barons. They selected Isaac Comnenus, an elderly army man, to reform the imperial government. He started the work in 1057, but then abdicated in 1059 in favor of Constantine X, a high official of the finance department. [This was the year of the Patzinak invasion described by Michael Psellus.]

1059-1067: Constantine X was emperor, but military officials were hostile to him because they believed that he favored the civil servants over the army. During his reign, the Normans completed their conquest of southern Italy in 1060 and the Seljuk Turks conquered Ani and raided Armenia in 1064. In addition, the barbarian Cumans crossed the Danube River into the Balkans in 1065 and it required a large military campaign to dislodge them.

1067-1071: After Constantine X died, his widow, the empress Eudoxia, married a soldier named Romanus Diogenes, and he ruled as the emperor until 1071. During his reign, the Normans expelled the last Byzantine outpost from Italy in 1071. While the Byzantine army was able to halt the advance of the Seljuks (1068-1069), they were not able to defeat them. Instead, Romanus Diogenes was captured by the Seljuks at the battle of Manzikert (1071) after several of his own commanders deserted. The Seljuks later released him, but when he tried to regain the imperial throne, his enemies captured him and put out his eyes, leaving him blind. He died soon after.

1071-1078: Michael VII, a son of Constantine X, became emperor and power shifted once again back to the civilians. With the help of his advisor Michael Psellus, Michael VII strengthened the civilian bureaucracy and allowed the military to decline. In 1074, Michael VII faced an attempt by Byzantine military officers to overthrow him, so he signed a treaty with the Seljuks to get their support. He kept his throne, but the Seljuks occupied large parts of Anatolia. In 1078, they supported a revolt by a Byzantine military commander named Nicephorus Botaniates, while another Byzantine military commander named Nicephorus Briennius revolted in Albania. Before the year ended, Michael VII abdicated his throne.

1078-1081: Nicephorus III (Botaniates) became the new emperor with Seljuk help. He was overthrown in 1081 by another general, Alexius Comnenus, who seized control of Constantinople using mercenaries.

1081-1118: With Alexius Comnenus as emperor, military interests became more powerful than those of the civilians. The First Crusade took place during his reign, and his daughter Anna Comnena, was the author of one of our readings.

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