• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Desertion: Realpolitik vs Ideology


Defectio shared a seat with high treason in Roman law, a crime which usually resulted in ignominious forms of punishment followed by the death penalty.[1] The Muslims shared this harsh attitude but framed defection in religious terms as apostasy (ridda or irtidad). Although the Qur’an hardly has anything to say on how apostates should be treated, early Islamic law denigrated them as almost sub-human, excluding them from even the possibility of repentance (tawba).


Events, however, have a tendency of making mincemeat of ideologies. Indeed, the exigencies of state traditionally make short work of legal views, moral constraints, religious requirements, ethnic stereotypes, obscure rituals, official pretences etc. But these factors never quite leave the fray, instead they wrestle power and its requirements – if only to show the agora did not stand uncontested.


Despite these harsh penalties and thick red lines, few seem to have been deterred from treachery. This text doesn’t refer to so much to perfidy of the infamous Andronikos Doukas variety than the sort that involved switching sides.[2] It’s an interesting exercise to ditch the bombastic rhetoric and examine both the sheer number of defections and how they were perceived on the ground.


Saborios is as good a place to start as any. The Armenian general betrayed Constans II for the caliph Muawiya I and met a rather farcical end when his troops were confronted by the loyalist patrikios Nikephoros – his horse having bolted, slamming his head into the city gate. The domestikos Manuel betrayed Theophilus. The Khurramite commander Nasr became Theophobus when he broke faith with the ummah and entered the same emperor’s service (834-837) with his sect. The Arab eunuch Samonas defected to Leo VI, eventually becoming parakoimomenos. Bardas Skleros, an opponent of Basil II, relied on Muslim allies.


On the Turkish side an Oghuz leader, Amerites, was received by Michael VI in 1056 with five hundred warriors.[3] Erisgen, a brother-in-law or Alp Arslan, also fled to Romanos IV. In fact, Charles Brand is able to list nineteen people who either lived permanently or visited the imperial court as Turkish mercenaries in the Komnenian period.[4]


Byzantine historians offer opinions on how some of these defections were received. Choniates puts into the mouth of Louis VII (at Meander River, 1147) that


“I do not know why the Romans – as if they were sacrificial animals – bring up these [Turkish] wolves and shamefully fatten them with their blood. They should expel them like wild animals from the herd.”[5]


Attaleiates tells us that there were shouts of astonishment when Erisgen entered the senate-thronged throne room. Though this may have been cultural theatre that debased the man as an “ugly Scythian” in order to show the emperor’s benevolence in raising him up to the imperial rank of proedros. Other conversions were celebrated for demonstrating the cunning intelligence of the Romans, as when Alexios I converted the Turkish emissary Siaous who subsequently brought the allegiance of several Anatolian cities over to Constantinople.[6]


One rather dramatic defection was accidental in nature. In November, 1068 a two-hundred strong patrol of Armenians was attacked by the Seljuk emir Shirwan Shah. In order to save their skins they declared that they were en route to the sultan in order to convert to Islam. Taken for their word they were escorted to the ruler and circumcised, their leader being awarded an annual income of twenty thousand dinars.[7]



The subjects of some traitors refused to accept their master’s defection. When Romanos IV’s domestikos Philaretos Brachamios for example submitted to Islam in 1085 it caused a collapse in his status (and therefore ability to lead). Though if Matthew of Edessa is to be believed this may have had more to do with the weakness of his general character rather than his apostasy per se. The Armenian historian claimed Philaretos was a spineless character who on receiving too few favours from the sultan fell into the doldrums of despair, a state he only rescued himself from by debasing himself in every possible manner.[8]


Some defectors appear a bit simple-minded in hindsight. Kinnamos, for instance, claimed the protostrator Alexios Axouch (discharged by Manuel I in 1167) was gauche enough at his palace outside Constantinople to have frescos painted of the sultan’s victories.[9] Others seem evil. Namely, Theodore Karyanites who was loathed for allowing the famous church of the Archangel in Chonai to be razed by Turks.[10] While Theodore Mangaphas appears plain unlucky to have been cut down by Turcoman bandits on his way to defect to the sultan.[11]


When the Komnenian dynasty assumed power the imperial family became the centre of defections to an unprecedented extent. Isaac, grandson of Alexios I, converted to Islam and married the Seljuk sultan’s daughter at Konya.[12] The enfant terrible Andronikos – after a life of conspiracy, imprisonment and exile – fled to Jerusalem and then the Turkish emir Saltuk of Erzurum. Choniates dismissed him as a “horse always on heat,” while Kinnamos mused that he was excommunicated for his incursions into the empire.[13]


Perhaps Constantinople’s biggest PR coup was the visit of sultan Kilic Arslan II in 1161. Looking to attract the emperor as a supporter in a domestic squabble that pitted him against his brother, Manuel sought to impose pomp on him that suited a Roman agenda. First, he planned a triumphal entrance so that both entered on an imperial chariot (this failed due to an earthquake). This led to a prokypsis ceremony, which involved lighting up the imperial family and plying them with praises, poems and music. Followed by the sultan’s prostration, his adoption as a spiritual son, meals, gifts, games in the hippodrome, a treaty and a farewell.


The visit wasn’t particularly well received by the people. The patriarch Chrysoberges objected at an infidel being able to handle or observe what he considered “divine objects,” while Choniates noted that the locals found many ways to mock the sultan, not least scoffing at the Muslim who apparently tried to fly from the hippodrome’s highest point (only to meet a very predictable end).[14]


More noticeable to the modern eye is the fact Manuel used one of the oldest tools in the Roman diplomatic toolkit to accept a defector from a foreign elite: spiritual son-ship. This had roots in Maurice’s adoption of Khusrau II (590) but was also used for Bulgarian kings and crusader lords too. It was useful because it officially (in profound religious terms) subsumed the person into the Byzantine family but was easily repudiated if the other failed to live up to these standards (read Byzantine interests).


[1] Only in the tenth century did Leo VI modify the law to take into account those who repented.

[2] After Konstantinos X had hoarded funds and pauperized the army (sending gifts and offers of friendship to any threats) both Thrace (by the Uzes) and Armenia (by Alp Arslan) had been devastated. By 1067 Turkish forces had even sacked Caesarea. Romanos IV adopted a policy of forward-defence and personally led three expeditions east before managing to seize Hieropolis (Manbij) in Syria. There was, however, lots of fruitless marching around while Turks avoided pitched battle, and squabbling among the generals as to whether they should adopt the Fabian scorched earth policy (potentially ruining their own heartlands). Matters reached fever pitch at Manzikert (1071) where Andronikos Doukas (leader of the rear guard) led his men to safety instead of entering the fray after falsely declaring the emperor dead. Later he led a coup with the same troops in favour of Michael II (Doukas), a weak and ineffectual ruler. Rather tragically, Romanos was surrounded at Adane and surrendered on the condition he be allowed to live out the remainder of his life as a monk. Instead his eyes were gouged and, lingering, he died of his wounds.

[3] Attaleiates, Historia, ed. & trans. I. P. Martin, Nueva Roma 15 (2002).

[4] C. Brand, “The Turkish Element in Byzantium, 11-12th Centuries, DOP 43, (1989) 1-25.

[5] N. Choniates, Historia, ed. van Dieten, CFHB (1975), p.70; trans. H. Magoulias, O City of Byzantium (1984) p.41.

[6] Anna Komnene 6.9.4-6, ed. D. R. Reinsch & A. Kambylis, pp. 187, 88.

[7] Bar Hebraeus, Chronicon Syriacum, ed. P. Bedjan (1890) p.244, trans. E. A. W. Budge, The Chronography of Greogry Abu’l Faraj (1932) p.218.

[8] Matthew of Edessa 2.60, trans. Dostourian, pp. 137-38.

[9] Kinnamos 6.6, ed. Meineke p.267, lines 14-16, trans. Brand p.199.

[10] Akropolites, 77, ed. Heisenberg, 1:160, line 1, trans. Macrides, pp. 346-7.

[11] N. Necipoglu, Turks and Byzantines (2000) p.268

[12] Choniates, ed. van Dieten, p.36, trans. Magoulias, p.21.

[13] Kinnamos 6.1, ed. Meineke, p.251, trans. Brand, pp. 188-89.

[14] Choniates, van D. pp. 119; M pp. 67-68.

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