Issue E983 of 24 Apr. 1998

The Perceptions of the Byzantine Aristocracy towards the Latins: 1081-1204

Click on the small images
Alexius I ComnenusIoannis I ComnenusManuel I ComnenusAlexius IV Aggelus

Alisia Simpson
B.A. (Hist.)
M.A. (Byz. Studies)
[The text is based on an M.A. thesis completed in 1997 at the University of Bristol]

The penetration of westerners into Byzantine society has been seen as the cause of conflict in Byzantine internal affairs.(1) One historian has gone so far as to say that the Latin infiltration caused a split in the fabric of Byzantine society that resulted in the formation of two opposing factions: the anti-Latin group of the city dwellers and the pro-Latin aristocracy of the court and provinces.(2) While this view might seem to explain the apparent differences in Byzantine attitudes to the West, it neglects the complexity of the internal situation in Byzantium, and does not adequately address the reasons behind aristocratic responses to the Latins.

Conflict in the internal affairs of the state was apparent before the Latin presence, and class differences and/or struggles were not the result of western infiltration. They had been present in Byzantine society for centuries, and were largely the result of the growing gap between rich and poor.(3) Thus to simply say that the Byzantine aristocracy was pro-Latin is not sufficient. As we shall see, the manifestation of aristocratic perceptions and reactions to the Latins was largely shaped by the internal depredation of the state and the failings of the emperor, as well as the aristocratic position in society. In particular it was the position and self-interest of the aristocrat that dictated his responses to the Latins.

The stratification of Byzantine society placed the aristocrat in an intermediate position between the emperor and the rest of the population.(4) The aristocratic class was neither politically nor socially a homogeneous group. In twelfth century Byzantium there existed three subdivisions within the aristocratic class. The court aristocracy was related to the emperor and largely based in the palaces and mansions of Constantinople. Their primary function was to serve as political advisors to the emperor.(5) The provincial aristocracy was dominated by the great land-owning families that controlled local government and provided the army with its highest officials.(6) Finally there existed the imperial bureaucracy, whose composition ranged from minor government officials to ministers of state and members of the senate.(7) The historian Niketas Choniates (the single most important Byzantine source for this period) rose from the position of imperial-under-secretary in the reign of Alexios II (1180-83), to that of a member of the senate at the time of the Latin conquest.

The intermediate role of the aristocrats in Byzantine society made them effectively the only weapon against an oppressive government. Moreover the ideology behind the imperial throne and the rigid control imposed by the central government made revolt the only effective means to curb the power of the emperor. Conflicts between the aristocratic class and the imperial government were not an innovation of the twelfth century. The extinction of the Macedonian line (1025) brought about a prolonged conflict among different aristocratic factions. In the same way, the end of Komnenian rule (1180) signalled a new phase in the aristocratic struggle for power.(8) The last two decades of the twelfth century witnessed an extraordinary large number of rebellions that were largely due to the ineffectiveness of imperial government.(9)

For our purposes it is significant that the confrontation between the aristocratic factions and the imperial government were not restricted within the empire.(10) In the previous centuries court and provincial aristocrats had employed foreign mercenaries, and allied themselves with foreign states in order to defeat the emperor.(11) In the twelfth century this foreign element was predominantly the West. Thus the Byzantine aristocrat saw in the Latins a means to defeat the emperor. This had nothing to do with personal like or dislike, religious grievances or political rivalry. Indeed it was self-interest and ambition for power that motivated the aristocrat to seek the aid of the Latins.

The alliance of some members of the aristocracy with the Latin states of the west can be seen as early as the reign of Alexios Komnenos (1081-1118). The Norman invasion (1082) which carried a pretender to the Byzantine throne was bound to lead to internal challenges for Alexios, who himself had acquired the throne through a coup d'(tat. Anna Komnene relates clearly that Alexios tried to divert certain leaders and counts from joining the Normans.(12) During the reigns of John and Manuel Komnenos the sources do not identify a large number of revolts. This suggests that Komnenian power was firmly established at the time. The death of Manuel Komnenos, however, would signify the end of the stable regime of the Komnenoi, and initiate a host of revolts such as the empire had never before witnessed.(13)

However, the grievances of the aristocrats towards the imperial government were already present in the reign of Manuel (1143-1180). Niketas Choniates relates how Manuel mistreated the nobility, dismissed counsellors and generals, and treated his ministers as though they were slaves.(14) The tyrannical government of Andronikos Komnenos would only serve to exacerbate the grievances of the aristocracy. The policy of Andronikos to effectively purge aristocratic resistance (15)drove many aristocrats to the west.(16) In particular Alexios Komnenos (cup-bearer to Emperor Manuel) and a certain Maleinos from Philipopolis would find their way to the Sicilian court of King William, and eventually join him in an invasion of Byzantium (1185).(17) Niketas Choniates remarks that 'the wrath of both men against Andronikos made them strenuously labour to the injury of their own country'.(18)

However, it was during the reign of Isaakios Angelos (1185-95) that internal rebellions would reach their peak. Of particular interest was the revolt of General Branas (1187), who according to Choniates employed his German allies in the struggle.(19) The numerous pseudo-Alexoii that appeared in Asia Minor, and the revolts of some of the remaining members of the Komnenoi family in Constantinople revealed the weakness of imperial government and aroused further aristocratic ambitions to power. (20) In the end it would be Isaakios's son Alexios IV who escaped to the court of Philip of Swabia and invited the crusaders to capture Constantinople in his name.(21)

So far we have seen how the court and provincial aristocrats utilised western friendships and alliances to pursue their own ambitions to power in times of imperial decadence. However, that does not fully answer the question of how the aristocracy perceived the Latins. As we shall see the Byzantine aristocrats constituted the one class that apparently maintained good relations with the Latins in Constantinople. However, when it came to advocating friendly relations with the leaders of the Fourth crusade, the motives of the aristocracy were primarily self-serving.

Although the evidence is scarce, it appears that the aristocratic class maintained good relations with the Italian merchants in Constantinople.(22) In the Latin massacre (1182) it seems that some of the Italian merchants were forewarned of the events to follow, (23) while during the massacre itself, Niketas Choniates relates how some Italians sought asylum in the houses of the nobility.(24) Moreover, Choniates himself escaped Constantinople in 1204 with the help of a Venetian friend, whom he says he had previously protected.(25) In fact nowhere in the sources is it implied that the aristocracy held a particular contempt for the Latin merchants. This is not surprising when we consider that the Italian monopoly over Byzantine trade had a limited effect on the land-owning aristocratic class. (26)

Following Choniates' account the only conclusion we can draw is that aristocratic attitudes to the Latins were predominantly characterised by indifference and an unmitigated desire for self-preservation. Although it is clear that in 1203-4 there existed pro-and-anti Latin opinions at the Byzantine court, (27) there exists no evidence that these were organised political factions. Choniates emphasises that the Byzantine nobles who advocated a reconciliation with the crusaders were primarily motivated by the fear of losing their possessions and even their own lives in the event of war. (28) In particular, Choniates relates that the members of the imperial family and the aristocrats who were associated with the Latins, ignored the anti-Latin sentiments of the citizenry and advocated a reconciliation with the crusaders because ' [they] were quicker to avoid battle with the Latins than an army of deer with a roaring lion'. (29) Thus it seems that the pro-Latin opinions that existed in the Byzantine court were not motivated by a genuine pro-Latin sentiment: rather they were mere expressions of cowardice and fear in the face of seemingly unbeatable foreign adversaries.

The oration delivered to Emperor Alexios IV by Nikephoros Chrysoberges (30) (January 1204) brings to light the internal conflicts of the aristocrats who advocated a reconciliation with the crusaders. While it is clear that Chrysoberges was resentful of the Latin presence (a continual theme of the oration is Alexios's military power over the crusaders, and the evil acts committed by the Venetians), yet he advocates a reconciliation between the two people and praises Alexios for his generosity towards the Latins. (31) Apparently Chrysoberges, as a member of Alexios's government felt that he had no choice. Indeed, Niketas Choniates admits to his own irresolution to nominate a new emperor: 'we realised full well that whoever was proposed for election would be let out the very next day like a sheep to slaughter, and that the chiefs of the Latin hosts would wrap their arms around Alexios and defend him.' (32)

Therefore we must conclude that the court and provincial aristocracy of Byzantium were neither conspicuously for or against the Latins. Indeed if they were for anyone, it was only themselves. This is not surprising when we consider that even before the Latin conquest there occurred a dangerous devolution of central power. (33) The secession of Cyprus (1184) (34) and the success of Leon Sgouros in subduing parts of central Greece (1202-3) (35) were clear signs of the way local aristocratic interest prevailed over national security. (36) Following the Latin conquest some members of the aristocracy, and in particular the Komnenoi family, were to form their own independent states in what were previously the eastern and western provinces of the Byzantine empire. (37) Thus it seems that the 'fall' of the Byzantine emperor did not signal the fall of the aristocracy. On the contrary, as the emperos' fortunes declined in the face of foreign adversaries, the court and provincial aristocrats were able to increase their power. In the end they would constitute the only group that benefited from the disaster of 1204. (38)


Primary Sources

Anna Comnena, The Alexiad, trans. E.R.A. Sewter (Harmondsworth, 1969).

Geoffrey of Villehardouin, 'The Conquest of Constantinople', in Joinville and
Villehardouin, Chronicles of the Crusades, trans. M.R.B. Shaw (London, 1963).

Michael Psellus, Chronographia, trans. E.R.A. Sewter (London, 1953).

Niketas Choniates, O City of Byzantium, The Annals of Niketas Choniates, trans. H.J. Magoulias (Detroit, 1984).

Secondary Works

Angold, M., The Byzantine Empire, 1025-1204 (London, 1997).

Brand, C.M., Byzantium Confronts the West (Cambridge, Mass., 1968).

Brand, C.M., 'A Byzantine Plan for the Fourth Crusade', Speculum 43 (1968),

Brown, H.F., 'The Venetians and the Venetian Quarter in Constantinople to the Close of the Twelfth Century', Journal of Hellenic Studies 39-40 (1919), pp.68-88.

Bryer, A., 'Cultural Relations Between East and West in the Twelfth Century' in D.Baker (ed.), Relations Between East and West in the Middle Ages (Edinburgh, 1973), pp.77-94.

Cheynet, J.C., Pouvoir et Contestations, Byzance, 963-1210 (Paris, 1990).

Karagianopoulos, I. E., He Byzantine Hestoria apo tes peges [Sources of Byzantine History] (Thessaloniki, 1993).

Karagianopoulos, I. E., To Byzanteno Kratos [The Byzantine State] (Thessaloniki, 1995).

Magdalino, P., The Empire of Manuel Komnenos, 1143-1180 (Cambridge, 1993).

Vryonis, S., Byzantium and Europe (London, 1967).


1See Karagianopoulos, Byzantine State, pp. 345-6.
2Angold, The Byzantine Empire, p.282; Brand, Byzantium Confronts the West, p.12.
3Brand, Byzantium Confronts the West, p.12.
4Karagianopoulos, Byzantinme Sources, p.346.
5J. C. Cheynet, Pouvoir et Contestations, Byzance, 963-1210 (Paris, 1990), p.475.
6Brand, Byzantium Confronts the West, p.7; Cheynet, Pouvoir et Contestations, p.475; Magdalino, The Empire, pp.181-2.
7Karagianopoulos, Byzantine State, pp.382-85; Brand, Byzantium Confronts the West, pp.9-11.
8Brand, Byzantium Confronts the West, p.7.
9 Niketas Choniates, O City of Byzantium, pp.232-3; Brand, Byzantium Confronts the West, p.85; Angold, The Byzantine Empire, p.177.
10Cheynet, Pouvoir et Contestations, p.476.
11Michael Psellus, Chronographia, pp. 15-20; Cheynet, Pouvoir et Contestations, p.476.
12Anna Comnena, The Alexiad, pp.125,163.
13Cheynet, Pouvoir et Contestations, p.432: Cheynet has counted forty-nine rebellions between 1180 and 1203.
14Niketas Choniates, O City of Byzantium, p.81.
15Niketas Choniates, O City of Byzantium, p.179; Eustathios Di Tessalonica, La Espugniazone Di Tessalonica, pp.36-7.
16Brand, Byzantium Confronts the West, p.54.
17Niketas Choniates, O City of Byzantium, p.164.
18Niketas Choniates, O City of Byzantium, p.164.
19Niketas Choniates, O City of Byzantium, p.207.
20Niketas Choniates, O City of Byzantium, pp.232-3; Brand, Byzantium Confronts the West, p.85.
21Niketas Choniates, O City of Byzantium, p.294.
22Brown, 'The Venetians and the Venetian Quarter in Constantinople', p.83; A. Bryer, 'Cultural Relations between East and West in the Twelfth Century' in D.Baker (ed.), Relations between East and West in the Middle Ages, (Edinburgh, 1973), p.88.
23Brand, Byzantium Confronts the West, p.41. This is only mentioned by the Latin chronicler William of Tyre.
24Niketas Choniates, O City of Byzantium, p.140.
25Niketas Choniates, O City of Byzantium, p.307.
26Brand, Byzantium Confronts the West, p.12; Magdalino, The Empire, pp.138-9.
27Niketas Choniates, O City of Byzantium, p.307; Geoffrey of Villehardouin, 'The Conquest', p.84; Brand, Byzantium Confronts the West, p.12.
28Niketas Choniates, O City of Byzantium, p.301-2.
29Niketas Choniates, O City of Byzantium, p.307.
30Nikephoros Chrysoberges held the position of Master of Orators in the government of Alexios IV.
31C.M.Brand, 'A Byzantine Plan for the Fourth Crusade', Speculum 43 (1968), pp.474-75.
32Niketas Choniates, O City of Byzantium, p.307.
33See Brand, Byzantium Confronts the West, p.244; Angold, The Byzantine Empire, pp.307-10.
34Niketas Choniates, O City of Byzantium, p.204.
35Niketas Choniates, O City of Byzantium, p.332.
36See Angold, The Byzantine Empire, p.278.
37Vryonis, Byzantium and Europe, p.310.
38Geoffrey of Villehardouin, 'The Conquest', p.98.

Back to Cover

This page hosted by Get your own Free Home Page