Creation of a new political elite in the Eastern Roman (‘Byzantine’) World through a process of political marriages – A high-point of ‘Byzantine’ diplomacy

Even though the fall of Constantinople to the Fourth Crusade in April 1204 marked a turning point in the history of Southeastern Europe and the entire Eastern Mediterranean world, changing—often radically—the political, cultural, religious, economic and social circumstances in this vast region, a wave of changes beginning exactly one century before this significant event had already transformed the political system in Southeastern Europe, that is, in the Byzantine Empire᾽s European hinterland.


The essential shift in the political paradigm of this region was the consequence of the externalization of Byzantine marriage policy, which brought about new political realities as Southeastern Europe underwent a transformation from a state-centred to a family-centred model or rulership and the rulers of the polities within the Byzantine sphere of influence became directly connected to the imperial family in a measure much greater than ever before.

Owing to this change, political prevalence in the northern Balkans increasingly became the result and the consequence of familial relations, with the hierarchy within the family circle mirroring the importance of each member of the new political elite created through a process of political marriages. The new political model lasted, in various forms, until the end of the Byzantine Empire, but its most significant period—during which the establishment and functioning of this new rulership of kinsmen in the northern Balkans became apparent—stretches roughly over the half century divided by the capture of Constantinople: the first quarter beginning with political earthquake in Byzantium and the entire region caused by the death of Manuel I Komnenos in 1180; and the second following the catastrophe of 1204. The newly established or reshuffled hierarchy among the already tightly-knit Byzantine and regional aristocracy also created a new set of precedents: Bulgarian apostasy from Byzantine Orthodoxy and its subsequent return to the ‘correct faith’ through compromises with the Byzantines, which led to the recognition of the Bulgarian patriarchate in 1235; the establishment of two rival regional Byzantine states in Anatolia and Europe, Nicaea and Epiros; the redefinition of the Serbian state along with the establishment of an autonomous Serbian archbishopric; and the conclusion to the short-lived dominance of the emperor at Thessaloniki and poised-to-be the liberator of new Rome, Theodore Angelos (1224–30) that came with his defeat at the hands of Bulgarian tsar Ivan II Asen (1218–41) in July 1230.

Building on a system of almost complete reliance on marriage alliances to advance the empire’s position in Central and Southeastern Europe since the times of Alexios I Komnenos (1081–1118), Manuel I Komnenos (1143–80), and especially the Angeloi emperors who succeeded him, attempted to maintain the empire’s prevalence over its northern Balkan hinterland through strategic marriage alliances. These further highlighted the disappearance of the dividing line between ‘domestic-internal’ and ‘foreign-external’ policy, and brought to the fore its replacement with a hierarchically organized, clan-like political structure, which called for delicate management of numerous relatives (with varying degrees of affinity) and their respective ambitions.

Developing a model of the overwhelming dominance of his own family within the empire (which in a single generation had succeeded in absorbing into its fold all rival families through a series of marriage alliances), Alexios I decided to externalize the system of control over rival families by applying its principles to foreign policy through the marriage of his heir, John II Komnenos (1118–43) to the Hungarian princess Piroska-Eirene. this was a revolutionary, paradigm-altering move. Piroska-Eirene was the first Western and the first Catholic princess to don the Byzantine imperial crown. Even more significantly, by acknowledging the shift in political significance for Byzantium from the lost East to the emerging West, Alexios Komnenos outlined the path for using the new political realities to the empire᾽s advantage by binding foreign rulers to the imperial family.

While John Komnenos’ bride was the first Western princess to become empress, their four sons were probably all married to foreign princesses. In this way, John Komnenos᾽ marriage to Piroska-Eirene dramatically changed the previous practice of choosing the future empress or brides for imperial sons from the most influential and powerful Byzantine families or from the Caucasian principalities that were traditionally connected to, and influenced by, Byzantium, but were becoming nonthreatening to Constantinople and politically irrelevant for its position in the world by the second half of the eleventh century. Once the paradigm for Byzantine influence changed from strict political domination to a more complex and inclusive system resting on the close personal relationship of the emperor to the ruler whose obedience was secured through marriage—and with mutually agreed upon and clearly defined principles of succession in the client polity—it became one of the main political methods employed by emperors in forging new alliances and strengthening existing ones.

The role of Manuel Komnenos in this ongoing process of creating a rule of true—and not just spiritual—kinsmen across Southeastern Europe, the Eastern Mediterranean, and beyond is of particular importance. With Manuel᾽s ambitious policy, especially in the quarter of a century that elapsed from his vengeful triumphs in the wake of the Second Crusade, in 1149/50, and the debacle that occurred at Myriokephalon in 1176, he succeeded in establishing the emperor᾽s position in Constantinople as that of the undisputable head of an amplified household—an oikos in the ‘foreign’ and ‘domestic’ spheres equally. But Manuel᾽s celebrated dominance over Southeastern Europe has left the persistent impression in scholarship of a swift decline in Byzantine power and influence in the northern Balkans after his death. In this context, the events in Byzantium᾽s European hinterland during the quarter of a century that preceded the Latin capture of Constantinople in 1204, have mainly been seen as a prelude to the imminent destruction of the empire, regardless of whether the blame is laid personally on Manuel, his overambitious and novel pro-western policy that is said to have overstretched the empire’s resources, or on the incompetence and rivalry of the Angeloi brothers. Nevertheless, in the same manner that Niketas Choniates᾽ sharp criticism of Manuel Komnenos—a criticism that led earlier generations of scholars to hold his policies partially responsible for the disaster that befell the empire in 1204—has been fundamentally reassessed and placed in historical context, so we should now revise the superficial and outdated characterizations of the reigns of Isaac II (1185–95) and Alexios III (1195–1203) Angelos as utterly unsuccessful. This is particularly necessary regarding their actions (‘successes’ or ‘failures’) in the sphere of ‘foreign policy’ and the consequences of those actions for the dominance of Byzantium over the network of imperial relatives in Southeastern Europe, which formed a specific and much more personalized Byzantine commonwealth.

Compared to Manuel Komnenos, his style and manner of rule, his authority and prestige, and—not least—his propaganda, the Angeloi emperors have been largely perceived as weak, incapable, and overly compromising. The weakness they allegedly demonstrated throughout their reigns has been taken as unmistakable proof of the decline of Byzantium in the decades leading up to 1204. This interpretation has also carried negative moral judgments on the character of Isaac II and, even more so, on that of Alexios III Angelos.  Traits such as the folly and immorality attached to Isaac’s grandiose ambitions but more pronounced in Alexios’ ousting and blinding of his brother, have translated into a more general negative appraisal of their policies and the repercussions these had on the state of the empire in the final decades of the twelfth century.


In the case of Serbia, and especially in Serbian scholarship, the conclusion that the Angeloi failed in their Balkan policy, and that, in general, they were too weak to preserve Byzantine domination over the empire᾽s European hinterland, has rested on two premises, which, over time, have acquired the status of undisputable facts:

– First, the Angeloi were more or less forced to admit defeat in Serbia around 1190/1 and over-compromised by subsequently arranging a marriage alliance between Isaac’s niece (Eudokia, third daughter of the future Alexios III) and the second son of the Serbian grand župan Stefan Nemanja (1166–96).

– Second, Serbia gained ‘independence’ as a consequence of this political arrangement, which was mainly the result of the weakness and incompetence of the Angeloi.

Both notions bear no connection to the historical realities of the time and—narrow nationalistic concerns aside—stem from a miscomprehension of the system of Byzantine dominance over the empire᾽s European hinterland as briefly described above, and of the features and dimensions of its delicate operation, which went well beyond the nineteenth-century conception of nation-states. The strongly personalized relationship between local rulers and the Byzantine emperor, which was established during Manuel᾽s reign, is evident in the cautious actions of both the Serbian ruler Stefan Nemanja and the Hungarian king Béla III (1172–96) after the death of their patron in 1180. They waited for Andronikos Komnenos to openly announce his usurpation in 1182 before beginning their incursions deep into Byzantine territory so that these could be justified as campaigns waged on behalf of Manuel᾽s heir, Alexios II (1180–3), and also on behalf of the late emperor᾽s legacy. Manuel᾽s death, therefore, did not open the floodgates, and his protégés Stefan Nemanja and Béla III were not eagerly awaiting the occasion to ‘free themselves’ from the imperial yoke.

Once Isaac II Angelos emerged as victorious in 1185, he was confronted with the Vlach–Bulgarian revolt, and was quick to cement the empire᾽s ties with the two rulers with whom Manuel had close personal relations: King Béla III of Hungary and the Serbian grand župan Stefan Nemanja.

Actually, instead of the swift decline in Byzantine dominance and influence in the Balkans, the quarter of a century that elapsed between the death of Manuel and the fall of Constantinople in 1204 represented the high-point of Byzantine diplomacy and influence in the empire᾽s Balkan hinterland—particularly, but not exclusively, in the case of Serbia. Adapting to the new geopolitical realities, the Angeloi fostered Byzantine influence in Serbia and in the empire᾽s European hinterland by adjusting Manuel᾽s ambitious policies to conform to the new balance of power. In the process, they also modified the position of the emperor towards his European neighbours, placing the relationship between the emperor and the local rulers in the region less on ideological and more on pragmatic grounds. Instead of insisting on the unrealistic and politically outdated model of an all-powerful overlord whose will should be obediently followed by local rulers, they applied the ‘Hungarian model’—again, especially in the case of Serbia, recognizing the latter’s rising political significance and potential, despite its position on the outskirts of direct Byzantine rule in the empire᾽s European hinterland—of including the most prominent members of the local ruling families into the imperial household. This policy had, at the very least, two direct consequences, and both were advantageous to the empire: first, the creation of a loyal elite amongst the ruling families in Byzantium᾽s European hinterland; and second, the strengthening of the position and lineage of the current emperor in Byzantium, who was now supported by the web of ‘foreign’ and ‘domestic’ relatives, with whom he had intertwined political interests, and whose support could prove vital in the continuing struggle for prevalence within the broad clan of the Komnenoi, to which the Angeloi also belonged.


The example of Serbia in the later twelfth century is a case in point for the skillful management by the Angeloi of the relationship with local rulers in the empire᾽s European hinterland. Both Isaac II and Alexios III managed to draw into the Byzantine political orbit, Stefan Nemanja, a personal vassal of Manuel, to whom he owed his position, titles, wealth, and dominance over his rivals within the Serbian ruling family. The Angeloi approached Stefan Nemanja cautiously, making realpolitik the basic tenet of their policy, in the unstable times following Andronikos Komnenos’ ‘revolution’ and his subsequently short but turbulent reign (1183–5). This had left, amongst others, the Serbian ruler politically disoriented and scrambling for new alliances in the face of the dismantling of the political order that had been established by Manuel in 1172.

Having first secured the Balkans from the north-west by reestablishing firm bonds with Hungary through Isaac᾽s marriage to Béla᾽s daughter, Margaret-Maria, this emperor upped the ante with the high-profiled marriage of Stefan Nemanja᾽s second son Stefan with Alexios Angelos᾽ daughter Eudokia, doubtlessly with the provision that the emperor᾽s son-in-law should succeed his father as the grand župan of Serbia. The high-ranking title of sebastokrator bestowed on Stefan Nemanja᾽s second son Stefan and his marriage to Eudokia confirms the importance of Serbia and the Balkan region as a whole in the post-Myriokephalon Byzantine world, and points to the necessity of tightening the political web of relatives in the empire᾽s European hinterland. The latter goal was realized by the close proximity of the new relatives to the Byzantine emperor and by the titles they received as a confirmation of their new status. That the new relationship was fostered by both sides is evident by the prompt reaction of Stefan Nemanja after the accession of Alexios III in 1195. Only eleven months after the younger Stefan’s father-in-law Alexios became emperor, Stefan Nemanja stepped down to take the monastic vow, leaving the throne to Stefan, and overlooking his eldest son Vukan, who was relegated to the second-in-line position in Diokleia.

Thus in Byzantium’ European hinterland the Angeloi implemented the main tenets of Komnenian external policy and diplomacy as inaugurated by Alexios I: by including not only members of the ruling houses of the empire’s most formidable rivals (Hungarians, Germans, Normans) into the imperial family (oikos) but also those of ‘lesser’ opponents, such as the Serbs and later the Bulgarians, the successors of Manuel Komnenos created a web of interconnected relatives that spread throughout Southeastern Europe.

Even if pressed by the political circumstances of the time, their diplomacy marked a shift to a more realistic and pragmatic policy toward these regions, and created a new political paradigm that survived the catastrophe of 1204, only to spread more widely and aggressively during the reign of Michael VIII Palaiologos (1259–82), and to reach its pinnacle under Michael᾽s son Andronikos (1282–1328) late in the thirteenth century.

These achievements of the Angeloi and the long-lasting success of their policy toward Serbia, and the empire᾽s European hinterland in general, gain in significance when viewed in the broader geopolitical context of the time and, especially, when juxtaposed with the aggressive diplomacy of Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) in Southeastern Europe in the decade leading up to the Latin conquest of Constantinople in 1204. In his attempt to diminish the influence of Constantinople and of the Orthodox Church in the northern Balkans, Innocent III remained unyielding in his rejection of the repeated pleas of the Serbian grand župan Stefan -son-in-law of Alexios III- for a royal crown in return for Serbia’s spiritual submission to Rome. Instead , the pope engaged directly with Stefan’s brother and rival Vukan. He not only recognized Vukan as the king of Diokleia and Dalmatia -in the old tradition of kingship in Diokleia- but also designed the ‘Archbishopric of Diokleia’ for Vukan’s polity, while stressing to the new ruler that ‘his’ church in Diokleia formed a part of the universal Roman Church, which is ‘above nations and kingdoms’ (super gentes et regna). Innocent’s legates also visited Vukan’s younger brother Stefan, the grand župan of Serbia, but in spite of Stefan’s warm reception of the legates and his gratitude towards the pope, whose universal dominance he recognized, Innocent III showed no willingless to duplicate the case of Diokleia in Serbia nor to proceed with the establishment of a kingdom of Serbia (to correspond to the kingdom of Diokleia with a church organization (archbishopric) that would be subjected to Rome.


Pope Innocent’s somewhat cautious and indecisive policy toward Serbia remained unchanged even after the capture of Constantinople in 1204. It seems that the pontiff underestimated the strength of the internal rivalry not only among the sons of Stefan Nemanja but within the broader circle of relatives that formed the Byzantine elite and fought amongst themselves for dominance in the decades following the fall of the empire. It is clear that Innocent III favoured the older Vukan and Diokleia over Stefan and Serbia, but his preference cost him the opportunity to secure for the papacy control of the deep Balkan hinterland, which remained awkwardly squeezed among the polities faithful to Rome: Diokleia to the south, Hungary to the north and -from 1204- Bulgaria to the east.

It is somewhat ironic that Innocent’s favouritism towards Vukan and Diokleia in the end proved advantageous for Serbia: Just a year after Innocent’s death in 1216, Stefan received the royal crown from the new pope, Honorius III, while a year later his younger brother Sava obtained autocephalous status for the Serbian Church from the Nicaean emperor, Theodore Laskaris (1205-21).

Owing to the political strategy of the Angeloi to offer concessions in return for the upper hand in political influence in Serbia, the royal crown received from Rome could not alter the fact that Serbia’s political orientation was firmly towards the Byzantine world, within whose political elite its ruler claimed a prominent position. Through this shift in policy towards the empire’s European hinterland and the local rulers and ruling elite, the Angeloi—in the quarter of a century that led to the fall of the empire—determined the future of the entire region, connecting it unequivocally and unchangeably to the Byzantine world. The positive results of the policies followed by Isaac II and Alexios III towards the empire’s European hinterland have been overshadowed in later Byzantine and modern historiography by the conquest of Constantinople and the subsequent partitioning of the Byzantine Empire. They become obvious only in light of the political orientation of the succeeding generations of Serbian and Bulgarian rulers: the empire’s European hinterland never wavered from its dependence on Byzantium, even during the bitter struggle between Epiros and Nicaea, and Balkan rulers always reacted swiftly to shifts of power within the Byzantine elite, a part of which they legitimately formed.

As we have seen, it was only an account of his marriage to the Byzantine princess that Nemanja’s second son Stefan was chosen to succeed him as the grand župan of Serbia, and indeed he assumed the Serbian throne less than a year after his father-in-law Alexios Angelos became emperor in Constantinople in 1195. We have also seen that as the emperor’s son-in-law, Stefan received along the way the exalted title sebastokrator, which placed him firmly within the highest echelons of the Byzantine imperial family and the Byzantine elite in general, and at the same time bound him and his successors to the Byzantine world

By following a new policy in the northern Balkans, and including the local ruling families into their own imperial lineage, and into the highest circles of Byzantine elite, Isaac II and Alexios III accomplished what even the strong-willed and sabre-rattling emperor Manuel Komnenos had failed to achieve in the Balkans: to win the loyalty of the locals, the elite, and the ruling families to Byzantine ideals, culture, religion and politics to the end of the Middle Ages. Even though not original in its concept, the policy followed by the Angeloi toward the empire’s Balkan hinterland, and particularly toward Serbia, was significantly upgraded in comparison to that of John II and Manuel I, and was astonishingly successful, managing to encompass Serbia, a rising polity with fluctuating identity and divided loyalties, within the Byzantine political system—a system of which it was a part of until the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

(Source: “Stronger than it Appears? Byzantium and its European Hinterland after the Death of Manuel I Komnenos”, by Vlada Stanković)


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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