What was the impact of Andronicus I on the Byzantine Empire

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There have been many notorious Roman Emperors such as Caligula and Nero. The successor state of the Romans, the Byzantines also had several Emperors who could be classed as evil. Andronicus I Comnenus, (1118-1185 AD) is regarded as one of the most vicious and depraved monarchs of the Eastern Roman Empire. His rule was a catastrophe for the Byzantine Empire just after it had begun to recover after the disastrous defeat at Manzikert (1079). This article argues that Andronicus I created a great deal of social conflict, his cruelty led to a breakdown in relations with the West, and he left the Empire exposed to invasion. It will also show that despite his bloodthirstiness, he genuinely sought to reform the Imperial system and Byzantine society. However, ultimately Andronicus I, tyrannical regime gravely weakened the Empire and left it vulnerable to its enemies.

Alexius I Komnenos of Byzantium


In 1079 the Byzantine Emperor was defeated by the Seljuk Turks at the Battle of Manzikert and this led to some twenty years of near anarchy in the Empire. During this time various claimants to the Byzantine throne fought civil wars as the Turks began to conquer more and more territory in Asia Minor[1]. The Empire became so weak that it seemed that the successor of the Roman state would soon collapse and be conquered by Seljuk Turks, Normans, and Bulgarians. However, beginning from the reign of Alexios I Comnenus there was a remarkable revival in the Byzantine Empire. When he inherited the Imperial diadem the Turks were, literally, almost at the gates of Byzantium and the Normans had invaded the Empire’s Balkan territories. Alexios I had managed to reconquer the coastline and west of Asia Minor and defended the Empire in its western possessions [2]. He had also inadvertently initiated the First Crusade when he sent ambassadors to Western Europe seeking military assistance. The Crusaders had established a series of Crusader states and these helped to improve the strategic situation for the Byzantines in the east [3]. Moreover, the Muslim states focused their attention on the Crusaders and tended to leave the Byzantines alone. Under Emperors John and Manuel, the Empire began to grow in strength and was the leading Christian power. However, there were continuing tensions between Orthodox and Latin Christianity after the schism in the Christian Church in 1054, while the Italian maritime Republics had begun to dominate the trade of the Byzantine territories [4].

The life of Andronicus

The future Andronicus I was a grandson of the Emperor Alexios I and a cousin of Emperor Manuel. He was a handsome and a charismatic figure and was a capable general. However, he led a scandalous life and was quite irresistible to women. Andronicus was a great favorite of the public in Byzantium despite his many affairs and the seduction of countless noblewomen, including his own niece [5]. He was forced into exile several times to avoid the wrath of the husbands and the families of the women he seduced and jilted. While in exile in Jerusalem he seduced the widow of the king and was forced to flee to Georgia. He became involved in a plot against Manuel and when it was detected he was lucky to escape with his life and was sentenced to exile on the Black Coast. However, his fortunes changed with the death of his cousin Emperor Manuel. His French wife became regent to his son and heir Alexios II. Manuel had been seen as too close to the West and many in Byzantium hated the Latin Christians, whom they viewed as barbarians. Moreover, they suspected that Maria was going to run the Empire in the interests of the West and the Italian city-states such as Venice. Andronicus saw an opportunity and he raised a rebellion and claimed to be saving the Empire and the Orthodox faith. He was able to become co-Emperor and dominated the Imperial government. He forced Alexios II to sign the death warrant for his own mother, Empress Maria and Andronicus later had the child-Emperor murdered[6].

The reign of Andronicus I

Andronicus began a reign of terror in the city of Constantinople and throughout the entire Empire. He was very suspicious and ordered any potential rivals to be killed. Andronicus also had many officials killed on charges of corruption. The Emperor executed a great many aristocrats. Andronicus sought to make himself popular with the ordinary people and he presented himself as their protector. He also made himself popular by styling himself as the defender of the Empire against the threats from the Latin West. Andronicus soon won the support of the mob and he encouraged them to attack Italian merchants who lived in the Latin Quarter in Constantinople in April (1182). The mostly Genoese and Pisan merchants and their families were murdered, and the survivors sold into slavery to the Turks. The massacre caused outrage in Western Europe. It is estimated that up to 60,000 mainly Italians were murdered, during what came to be known as ‘the Massacre of the Latins’ at the instigation of Andronicus. The Emperor became increasingly paranoid and he ordered more officials and aristocrats to be summarily and cruelly executed. Soon the Empire was in chaos and the Norman King William of Sicily invaded and aimed to conquer the Empire with a huge army. William advanced to the great city of Thessalonica and captured it and then proceeded to advance to Constantinople. Andronicus who did not trust anyone assembled an army to defend the city but placed it under five different commanders[7]. However, Andronicus I was more concerned with persecuting his real and imagined enemies and he ordered the arrest of Isaac Angelos, but he evaded arrest and raised a rebellion in the city. Andronicus was deposed and captured and handed over to the city’s mob and was tortured for three days before he was finally publicly executed. His body was left unburied at the side of the road for years[8].

An illustration of the Crusaders attacking an Arab fortress

Andronicus and the reform of the Empire

Andronicus was an able general and had proven himself to be a competent administrator. He was aware that the great Byzantine magnates had grown too powerful and were acting like independent lords especially in Asia Minor. They were subverting the power of the state and exploiting the peasantry. Furthermore, they were not paying tax, seizing public land and creating a feudal system. Then the bureaucracy had become very corrupt and often extorted money and goods from the common people. Andronicus did improve the government and ended many abuses, despite his cruelty. His reign according to the great British historian Gibbon, ‘exhibited a singular contrast of vice and virtue. When he listened to his passions, he was the scourge; when he consulted his reason, the father, of his people’ [9]. It does seem that Andronicus wanted to reform the state and end the growing feudalism in Asia Minor and extend central control over the localities. However, his death ended any hopes of change and the Byzantine nobility, increasingly became feudal lords and this weakened the Byzantine state.

The invasion of William I

The Normans had arrived in Southern Italy as mercenaries and they eventually created a powerful kingdom in southern Italy. They had ambitions to conquer the Byzantine Empire and the great city of Constantinople[10]. The great Norman leader Robert Guiscard had invaded and ravaged the Balkans in the 1080s. Andronicus I reign of terror, plunged the Empire into chaos and William II saw his opportunity. The bloody Emperor’s son-in-law was in control of large areas of the Balkans. He was as cruel as Andronicus and terrorized many cities and when the Normans invaded from southern Italy the local communities welcomed them as liberators. The Normans easily took the Western Balkans and most of Greece and after they sacked Thessalonica, they marched on Constantinople. Andronicus defense of the city was totally inadequate and this led to the revolt that ended with his death. It fell to his successor Isaac Angelos to retrieve the situation [11]. The Byzantines were fortunate as the mainly mercenary army of William disintegrated in a series of counter-attacks. Andronicus’ policies had almost led to the destruction of the Empire, which his grandfather, Alexios I, has saved in the aftermath of the disaster at Manzikert [12].

Andronicus and the West

There had been growing tensions between western and eastern Christianity for many centuries. Many Orthodox Christians hated their fellow Christians and claimed that they preferred the Muslim Turks to their co-religionist from Europe[13]. Since the 11th century the Italian city-states had been growing in influence in the Empire and by the 1150s had come to dominate Byzantine trade. This naturally led to a great deal of resentment. There was a great deal of anti-western feeling in the Imperial capital and the ordinary people, deeply disliked the Latins, as they called their fellow Christians from western Europe. Andronicus knew this, and he played on it to ensure that he was able to secure a share of the Imperial power. His anti-western policies led to the Massacre of the Latins in 1182. However, whether or not he intended this to happen is difficult to determine. It does seem that he made it clear that he would not oppose the Constantinople mob if they attacked the Latins. Andronicus I clearly benefitted from the massacre and it made him at immensely popular. It is quite possible that Andronicus used the killing of innocent Italian men, women, and children to legitimize his usurpation of the throne[14]. However, the impact of the massacre was to have profound implications for the Byzantine Empire and his relationship with the west and the crusader kingdoms. The news of the massacre angered many and it provoked the Hungarians to raid Byzantine territory. The Massacre of the Latins and the murder of Empress Maria caused a rupture between Constantinople and the Crusaders states and ended what limited cooperation there was between them. More serious was the impact on the Byzantine's relationship with the West. The kingdoms who owed allegiance to the Western Church regarded the Byzantines as heretics. The Massacre of the Latins made many extremely suspicious of Constantinople in Western Europe. In the coming centuries when Constantinople sought help from the west, against the Ottoman Turks they were as often as not rebuffed. Part of this, was because the Byzantines refused to re-join the Latin or Catholic Church, but it was also because after the Massacre of the Latins that they did not trust their fellow Christians from the East [15]. The anti-western policies of Andronicus I and his role in the massacre of Constantinople’s Italian mercantile community permanently damaged relations with the Latin kingdoms and ensured that they did not receive aid in their battle against the advancing Muslims in the centuries ahead. This was to play a significant part in the ultimate destruction of the Empire. It has often been stated that the Massacre of the Latins was one of the reasons for the Fourth Crusade (1204). This was a Crusade that instead of attacking the Muslims captured Constantinople. While it would be an exaggeration to state that Andronicus I policies led to the Fourth Crusade it was probably a contributory factor [16].

File:And One.jpg
Crusaders in Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade- modern depiction


Andronicus I was possibly the most vicious ruler of the Byzantine Emperor and many have even claimed him to be among the infamous list of history’s most evil rulers. He may have sought to curb the power of the aristocracy and the emergence of a feudal system, for the good of the state. This was probably the case, but he also persecuted the elite, to safeguard his position. His role in the Massacre of the Latins was to have far-reaching consequences. It deepened the division between Orthodox and Latins and this ensured that Byzantium was left to face the onslaught of the Turks, almost entirely on its own. Finally, his chaotic and brutal rule weakened the Empire and allowed William of Sicily to almost capture the successor state of Rome. In the final analysis Andronicus, I was a bloody tyrant who was one of a series of rulers who greatly contributed to the fall of the Byzantine Empire.

Recommended Reading

Laiou-Thomadakis, A.E., 1980. The Byzantine Economy in the Mediterranean Trade System; Thirteenth-Fifteenth Centuries. Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 34, pp.177-222.

Queller, D.E. and Madden, T.F., 1999. The Fourth Crusade: The Conquest of Constantinople. University of Pennsylvania Press.

Angold, M., 1999. The road to 1204: The Byzantine background to the Fourth Crusade. Journal of Medieval History, 25(3), pp.257-278.

Harris, Jonathan (2003), Byzantium and the Crusades. London: Bloomsbury Academic

The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press


  1. Angold, Michael The Byzantine Empire, 1025–1204 (London, Longman, 1997), p 56
  2. Angold, p 119
  3. Harris, Jonathan, Byzantium and the Crusades (London, Bloomsbury, 2014), p 113
  4. Harris, p 203
  5. Norwich, John Julius, A history of Byzantium (volume iii, London, Penguin, 1996), p 116
  6. Norwich, p 228
  7. Norwich, p 229
  8. Norwich, p 227
  9. Gibbon, Edward, Decline, and Fall of the Roman Empire (London, Penguin, 1968), chapter 48
  10. Gibbon, chapter 48
  11. Gibbon, chapter 48
  12. Norwich, p 119
  13. Harris, p 203
  14. Norwich, p 120
  15. Norwich, p 126
  16. Angold, M., 1999. The road to 1204: The Byzantine background to the Fourth Crusade. Journal of Medieval History, 25(3), p.262