When Alexios Komnenos became emperor of the Byzantine Empire in 1081, he immediately handed over the governance of the realm to his mother while he went off to fight the Norman invader, Robert Guiscard. Alexios’ decision is hardly surprising once you begin to learn about her. After all, his mother, Anna Dalassena (or Dalassene), was the mastermind behind the rise to power of the Komnenos Dynasty.
Anna Dalassena’s affiliation with the Komnenos family began when she married John Komnenos, a powerful lord in the Byzantine Empire who, unfortunately for his wife, was a content man who felt no need to climb any higher in the imperial hierarchy. John’s complacency was so complete that when his extremely ill brother, Emperor Isaac Komnenos (r. 1057-1059), literally handed him the imperial throne, John Komnenos declined the offer. Anna Dalassena watched in horror as the crown passed over her husband and fell to Constantine X Doukas (r. 1059-1067). Anna would have a life-long grudge against the Doukas family because of this incident.
In 1067, Constantine X Doukas, and Anna Dalassena’s husband, John Komnenos, both met their deaths. Anna, now the matriarch of the Komnenos family, would spend the next fourteen years navigating through enough audacious court drama to fill an HBO miniseries, but will try to keep it brief. Here is a taste of what happened: Constantine’s widow, Eudokia, became regent of the Byzantine Empire while her son, Michael VII Doukas, grew to adulthood. Instead of remaining a single widow, she married a general named Romanos IV Diogenes (r. 1067-1071) and named him the new emperor. While most of the empire disapproved of Romanos, Anna Dalassene supported the new imperial couple, if only to harm the Doukas family. Nevertheless, Romanos IV was captured by the Turks in the 1071 Battle of Manzikert, allowing Michael VII Doukas (r. 1071-1078) to take the throne. For her support of the now blinded and executed Romanos, Anna Dalassena was momentarily exiled, but quickly returned and was restored to a favorable position in the empire.
The drama continued when Emperor Michael VII abdicated to become a monk, leaving the throne to the elderly Emperor Nikephoros III Botaneiates (r. 1078-1081). Awkwardly, Maria Doukas of Alania, who was the former wife of Michael VII (now a monk), agreed to marry the new emperor, likely hoping her son, Constantine Doukas, would become the next heir. Yet, things did not go according to plan—Botaneiates wanted to crown his nephew as his heir, instead of Maria’s son. Fortunately for Empress Maria Doukas, her elderly husband was a poor leader, and she had a lot of upstarts and rebels that she could throw her support behind. She eventually sided with Anna Dalassena’s sons, Isaac and Alexios Komnenos, who had been making names for themselves by fighting foreign armies and rebels.
By the end of Emperor Botaneiates’ reign, the Komnenoi brothers were household names in the Byzantine Empire, with Alexios Komnenos being especially prestigious. He increased his power further when he (to his mother’s annoyance) forged an alliance with the Doukas family by marrying the young Eirene Doukiana. In 1081, Anna Dalassena succeeded in convincing her sons to rebel against the emperor. It was not hard to convince the Komnenoi, because the emperor, in fear of Alexios’ power, had been plotting to have both brothers blinded. In Alexios’ 1081 uprising, he sacked the empire’s capital of Constantinople and took the throne, forcing Nicephoros III Botaneiates to become a monk.
Although he had the throne, Alexios’ challenges were far from over. Within the year (1081), Robert Guiscard led an army of Normans in an invasion of the Byzantine Empire. While Alexios faced off against this formidable foe, he left the empire in the hands of the best organizer and administrator he knew—his mother.
In his chrysobull (golden bull) of August 1081, Alexios Komnenos gave his mother, Anna Dallassena, incredible powers to rule in his stead. Anna Komnene (Alexios’ daughter, c. 1083-1153) recorded the short, but substantial, four-paragraph document in the history she wrote about her father, The Alexiad. In the chrysobull, Alexios decreed that his mother would be given complete control over his empire’s political and civil affairs. Her power included the ability to appoint and promote tribunals, government positions and offices, as well as distribute gifts and honors to subjects she deemed worthy. Furthermore, she had the unquestionable right to adjust the empire’s tax rates, salaries, and to make any other similar decisions that were in the best interest of the empire’s economy. Finally, all of the decisions that Anna Dalassena made were to be treated as if they were coming directly from the hand or mouth of Emperor Alexios, and would remain permanent and unaltered, even after Alexios regained full control of the empire’s administration.
Anna Komnene, who admired both her father and her grandmother greatly, summarized Alexios’ early government philosophy in an interesting statement:
“Wars against the barbarians, with all their attendant trials and tribulations, he was prepared to face himself, but the entire administration of affairs, the choice of civil magistrates, the accounts of the imperial revenues and expenditure he left to his mother.”
(Anna Komnene, The Alexiad (Book III), trans. E. R. A. Sewter, 2009).
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Top picture attribution: Medieval illustration of Emperor Alexios Komnenos (r. 1081-1118), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons. Yes, it has been cropped and augmented.
- The Alexiad by Anna Komnene, translated by E. R. A. Sewter. New York: Penguin Books, 2009.