Alexios I Comnenus was an outstanding ruler of the Byzantine Empire. He came to the throne at a time when the empire had threats on all sides. The Turks attacked in the east/Asia Minor, the Pechenegs marched in from the north, and the brilliant Norman leader, Robert Guiscard, menaced from the west. By the end of Alexios’s 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. But the price Alexios had to pay was higher than he knew.
All these enemies were formidable, but the ambitions of the Norman adventurer Guiscard posed the most immediate threat. The Norman had seen the Byzantines ruled by a succession of weak and venial emperors. He had conquered Bari, the last Byzantine territory in Italy. Alexios was a new and young emperor. Guiscard saw an opportunity to acquire the rest of the empire for himself, much like William the Conqueror in England a few years earlier. Alexios had to use every resource available to hire and supply his army.
Alexios asked for naval assistance from the Venetians, who did nothing without getting paid for it. However, instead of paying in gold (which was scarce), he paid in trading concessions. He allowed the Venetians 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 did its part to slow Guiscard’s efforts. Alexios used other means to distract Guiscard from approaching Constantinople. He sent a king’s ransom in gold and treasures to the German emperor, who attacked Guiscard’s holdings in Italy. After several years of Alexios’ desperate maneuverings, Guiscard finally died of a fever on the beach of a Greek island in 1085.
The Byzantine government strictly regulated its merchants and what prices they charged. Now, the Venetian merchants no longer had to adhere to those rules. Without the 10% tariff, the Venetians gained a competitive edge over local merchants and other Italians. In a desperate time, it was a minor issue, but over time its impact grew. Later emperors tried to do away with Alexios’ concession to the Venetians, without success.
About 90 years later, 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. Dandolo developed an implacable hatred for the Byzantines during these protracted negotiations (they lasted 12 years).
The Fourth Crusade
In 1192, at the age of 85 and already blind, the people of Venice elected Dandolo to the position of Doge. He was the Doge and a key leader of the Fourth Crusade that sacked Constantinople in 1204. The Venetians hauled off to Venice innumerable precious objects, artwork and gold, including the four horses seen below.
Alexios I could not have anticipated this result when he signed his agreement with Venice in 1082. Guiscard’s menace was immediate and he had to address it, however he could manage it. 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.