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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Vasilief, A History of the Byzantine Empire

Byzantium and the Crusades

The Comneni emperors and their foreign policy 


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Upon ascending the throne, John II (1118-1143) had at once to undergo a painful experience. A plot against him was discovered, in which his sister Anna took the leading part; his mother was also entangled. The conspiracy failed, but John treated the conspirators very leniently, only punishing the majority by depriving them of their property. Because of his lofty moral qualities, John deserved general respect; he was called Calojohn (Caloyan), that is to say, John the Good (or the Handsome). Both Greek and Latin writers are unanimous in their high appreciation of John's character. Nicetas Choniates said, he was the best type (κορωνίς) of all the Emperors, from the family of the Comneni, who had ever sat upon the Roman throne. Gibbon, who was always severe in his judgment of Byzantine rulers, wrote of this best and greatest of the Comnenian princes, that even the philosophic Marcus (Aurelius) would not have disdained the artless virtues of his successor, derived from his heart, and not borrowed from the schools.

Opposed to needless luxury and wasteful prodigality, John stamped his mark upon the court, which, under his rule, lived a strict and economical life; there were no more entertainments, no festivities, no enormous expenses. On the other hand, the reign of this merciful, calm, and most moral Emperor was little but a continuous military campaign.

His son and successor, Manuel I (1143-1180) formed a complete contrast to John. A convinced admirer of the West who had chosen as his ideal the western knight, the new Emperor changed at once the austere court setting of his late father. Cheerful entertainments, love, receptions, sumptuous festivities, hunting parties after the western pattern, tournaments - all these spread widely over Constantinople. The visits to the capital of foreign sovereigns such as the kings of Germany and France, the sultan of Iconium, and several Latin princes from the East, with the king of Jerusalem, Amaury I, at their head, required enormous amounts of money.

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