Alexios I Comnenus was an outstanding ruler of the Byzantine Empire. He came to the throne at a time when the empire was threatened by the Turks in the east/Asia Minor, the Pechenegs from the north, and the brilliant Norman leader, Robert Guiscard, from the west. By the end of his long reign, Robert Guiscard was in his grave, the Pechenegs thoroughly eliminated, and the Turks at least at a standstill, if not pushed back slightly.
All these enemies were formidable, but Guiscard and his ambitions posed the most immediate threat. The Norman had seen the Byzantines ruled by a succession of weak and venial emperors and perceived the opportunity to acquire an empire for himself, much another Norman had done in England a few years earlier. Alexios used every resource available to hire and supply his army and do what he could to distract Guiscard from Constantinople. He sent a king’s ransom in gold and treasures to the German emperor, who then attacked Guiscard’s holdings in Italy and the pope, forcing Guiscard back for a time. Ultimately, the Norman drove off the Germans and returned his attention to his main goal – the Byzantine Empire.
This time Alexios called for naval assistance from the Venetians. However, instead of paying in gold (which may have been scarce), this time he paid in trading concessions – the Venetians were allowed to set up their own businesses in Constantinople, the first foreigners ever permitted this privilege. In addition, they no longer had to pay the usual 10% tariff when bringing goods into the city.
Venice’s navy successfully slowed Guiscard’s efforts until he finally died of a fever on the beach of a Greek island in 1085.
Byzantine merchants were highly regulated by the government, rules which the new Venetian merchants did not have to adhere to. And without the 10% tariff, the Venetians often had a competitive edge over local merchants. This may have been a minor issue at first, but over time, its impact grew. Later emperors tried to do away with Alexios’ concession to the Venetians, without success.
In 1171 the merchants and people of Constantinople reached their limit. The government arrested all Venetians in the empire and seized their goods. The Venetians sent several expeditions to Constantinople to settle the disputes, and included in these was Enrico Dandolo, the scion of a prominent family then in his 60s. It was during these protracted negotiations (they lasted 12 years) that he developed an implacable hatred for the Byzantines.
In 1192, at the age of 85 and already blind, he was elected Doge of Venice. He was the Doge and leader of the Fourth Crusade that sacked Constantinople in 1204, hauling off to Venice innumerable precious objects, artwork and gold.
This was hardly the result Alexios I could have anticipated when he signed his agreement with Venice in 1082. But Guiscard’s menace was immediate and had to be addressed, while the empire’s resources were thin after decades of poor rulers. Still, if Alexios’ understanding of economics had been better, he might have agreed to the concessions for a period of time, perhaps 10-20 years, limiting its impact on both the Byzantines and Venetians.