The Komnenian reform; why did it fail

Prior to the 12th century, writers of the Eastern Roman Empire had described the west in terms delineating the region as being comprised of a series of distinctly different peoples, cultures and territories (Spaniards, Italians, etc.). By the time that Manuel began to reach the heights of Imperial power, eastern intellectuals had begun to describe Europe as a unified people, bringing the concept of “The West” to the East (Kahzdan).


To characterize briefly what Manuel I would have perceived and his fellow Byzantines, Western Europe was consumed by the fervor of the Crusades during the 1100s. The Crusades were an attempt in part by the Church to maintain a hold on Western Christendom and prevent the rapidly increasing centralization of power in the hands of government, rather than in those of the church. The structure of government and society was shifting rapidly during this period in Western history and while Manuel occasionally tried to take advantage of these changes, he could not have failed to note the dynamism and superior armies of Europe, particularly when they were riding through Imperial lands.

With the Western Way of War came an aggressiveness that Byzantium warfare did not characteristically possess. Another signal aspect in which West outclassed East was in the discipline of forces. Where combat effectiveness had been a major point of study for centuries in Europe, the focus in the Byzantine Empire had been on diplomacy and avoiding war, rather than acting as the aggressor of it. Before the Komnenian line, most of the emperors had chosen against putting resources into a consistent military force, choosing instead to rely on the tested method of subsidies.

The Komnenoi were aware of the culture of Western Europe from the reign of Alexios onwards. During his rule, a few Westerners even held high positions in the army and at court (Kahzdan). Manuel went further in his attempts to integrate the Byzantine Empire with the world around him, though much of his efforts focused on the military rather than the political.

Not since Theophilos had there been another Byzantine emperor who attracted comment for his love of foreign culture, gaining a reputation as an admirer of the West (Magdalino)

The prestige of arms in the Western world had come to influence the Byzantine emperor. While the Imperial state was centralized in function, Manuel began to add prestige to aristocratic officers in the army through the system of pronoia. Where Alexios I had used pronoia to safeguard his empire through land grants to his own family, Manuel used it to reward the army. In some respects, the system bore similarity to western feudalism; however, unlike serfs, the pronoiai owed no service to the upper strata of the system, the pronoiar, because the emperor still maintained central control as the owner of the land. This same system enabled the emperor to request military service of those who held the grant, much as had been done under the earlier guise of conscription (Treadgold).

The Latin West exerted influence on more than military culture – in his campaigns throughout the latter half of the 12th century; Manuel used siege warfare and fortification to alter the way in which he was fighting. Because of the foundation built for him by Alexios and John, Manuel had an army more disciplined and able to adapt to using European tactics in the Byzantine setting. Soldiers were drawn both from native populations, particularly in Asia Minor, and from those that the army defeated. Foreigners comprised approximately 1/3 of all troops, a significantly lowered figure from previous, mainly mercenary, armies (Gallant).

The strengthening of the Komnenian army was based on the emperors who held it. Much like ancient Rome, the Byzantine Empire was controlled by a “cult of the emperor” – power was centralized and placed in the hands of a singular individual. Had Manuel had the resources and effective economic structures to maintain the series of campaigns on which he embarked, the strength of the army might have been inherited by his successors. The majority of his tenure as emperor was spent in battle – he did little to restore the empire’s degenerating economy.

From a long-term military perspective, his army was ultimately unsuccessful as well. Despite attempts to regain Anatolia, no conclusion was reached with the Seljuk Turks and the long history of warfare between them and the Byzantines.

The Komnenian military tradition would not outlive the third of the line despite the groundwork laid by three successive emperors.

Andronikos was the last Komnenian emperor to rule Constantinople, though his heirs took the empire after him. After this point, Byzantium conclusively returned to traditional defensive tactics and bribery of nearby enemies.


The collapse of the military tradition cannot be laid solely at the feet of a successor in his minority due to the brief time in which Alexios II ruled. There were several factors in the disappearance of Komnenian reform, among them a lack in Byzantium of the very qualities that promoted success in the Western Way of War.

One of the key tenets of a Western Way of War is the ability of western forces to innovate and adapt to situations. Byzantium was never fully able to embrace this quality, assuming the trappings of western civilization while they continued to utilize a consistent series of interactions with other powers.

It is interesting to note that when pressed with a difficult situation, Manuel I chose to return to eastern diplomacy rather than embrace western aggression.

Despite similarities in religiosity, Byzantium did not possess the same degree of religious fervor that its counterparts would experience in Europe.

A third quality that differentiated some western armies from the east was civic involvement with the military. Although the concept of citizen soldiers would not fully blossom until later centuries, power in the western world was not always held exclusively in the hands of a centralized monarch but distributed through nobles, religious leaders and monarchs with variance depending on the state in which the aforementioned resided.

Centralization of power was the basis of Byzantine government, reflected not only in the rapid destabilization of military systems as leaders left it but also in the rising and waning of the agricultural economy based on those who held the Imperial power. Those emperors who placed value on the military, as Manuel did, and elected to drain resources from the land in order to power their armies also created a situation in which the economy diminished significantly.

Financial depression provoked a cycle of strife – without a functioning economy, a stable military could not be maintained. Without a stable military or a functioning economy, the pressures of neighboring enemy states intensified. The warfare that Manuel believed would strengthen and expand the Eastern Roman Empire may have hastened its demise.

Byzantium reached some of its strongest moments when it came into contact with Western Europe. Had Manuel been able to maintain a stabilized economy, the future of the Empire would have been significantly different. During the reign of the Komnenoi, the door was opened to new ideas of what an army was and how it could function, no longer relying solely on defense but rather, looking towards the west, to examine offense and innovation. Change does not come easily, however, and without charismatic individuals shepherding this process, the idea was condemned before it could come to full fruition. The western tradition never took root in the East.

(Source: “The Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) and the Western Way of War – The Komnenian Armies”, by Gwen Perkins)


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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