Lesser Known 11th Century Byzantines, Part 3 – George Maniakes

Lesser Known 11th Century Byzantines, George Maniakes

Another oft forgotten but towering (literally) figure of the 11th century Eastern Roman Empire was the general George Maniakes. Known for his great height and strength, as well as his temper, he successfully routed Arabs who occupied part of what is now Syria in 1030 when he held a fortified town near Aleppo. Following a disastrous Roman loss to the Arabs, the town was attacked by about 800 of them. Maniakes promised the Arabs that he would surrender the next morning, and sent food and adult beverages to the Arabs for their celebration. The Arabs celebrated too soon, drinking to excess, and allowing our hero to attack and defeat them in the early hours of the day.

A couple of years later Maniakes attacked and held Edessa. This rich city was so prosperous that Maniakes was able to send 50 pounds of gold to the emperor annually. Later, the Orphanotrophos (see Part 1 of this series) became concerned that Maniakes was becoming too powerful, and sent him to be the governor of Vaspurakan, a remote part of Armenia that had been ceded to the Byzantines.

By 1038 Maniakes was assigned the task of wresting back control over Sicily from the Arabs and North Africans (Carthaginians) who had been fighting over it. He successfully won back this territory by 1039, but in 1040 the Carthaginians returned with a new army. A battle took place near the current town of Troina, west of Mt. Etna. Unfortunately, Maniakes had been saddled with the “help” of the emperor’s incompetent brother-in-law, Stephen. Maniakes sent Stephen to secure the coast and prevent any Arabs/Carthaginians from escaping, Maniakes being confident in his ability to win the battle.

While Maniakes won the battle, Stephen, of course, failed at his task. This is where Maniakes lost his temper with Stephen, reportedly beating him with a whip, hitting him in the head, and shoving him into the mud. Stephen did not take kindly to this treatment, and the emperor soon had Maniakes arrested and hauled off to prison in Constantinople for a year or two until Emperor Michael IV died in December 1041. (The illustration above is from the Madrid Skylitzes’ history and pictures Maniakes being brought to Constantinople for incarceration.)

Maniakes was released prior to the summer of 1042 and soon dispatched to southern Italy (hopes for Sicily’s recovery abandoned by that time) where there was unrest in the empire’s holdings there. Again, he was successful in his military efforts, but matters in Constantinople were not evolving in his favor.

In the summer of 1042, the aging Empress Zoe chose her third and final husband, a man named Constantine Monomachos. In one of the more bizarre imperial arrangements, Zoe permitted Monomachos to bring his mistress, Maria Skleraina, with him. La Skleraina, as she was called, had a brother, Romanos Skleros, who owned an estate in Anatolia adjacent to property owned by our hero. Skleros and Maniakes did not have a cordial relationship as neighbors and once his sister was installed as the official mistress of the new emperor, Skleros took the opportunity to pillage and destroy villages owned by Maniakes. In addition, John Skylitzes’ history recounts that Skleros “desecrated the marriage bed” with Maniakes’ wife. The implication was that Skleros seduced her, but given the violence of the rest of his actions, I am suspicious that it could have been rape.

This was finally all that Maniakes would take. He rallied his troops (including some of the Varangian guards) and declared himself emperor. Over the next few months, through winter weather, he and his army made their way to Constantinople. One story has it that the emperor sent Romanos Skleros out with an army to stop Maniakes, but were defeated and Skleros killed. I’m not sure about this since there was a Romanos Skleros who participated in the rebellion that brought Isaac Comnenus to the throne about 10 years later. However, given the distinct lack of originality in medieval naming habits, that Romanos Skleros may have been a nephew or cousin.

(Note: Skylitzes’ history is the only one detailing the reasons for Maniakes’ rebellion. Michael Psellos and Michael Attaleiates, both in careers close to the center of imperial power, simply recount that he rebelled and sought to make himself emperor.)

Maniakes showed every sign of being able to defeat the imperial forces until they met in battle near the town of Ostrovo on the Via Egnatia. In fact, Maniakes’ forces did win the battle. It did them little good, though, since Maniakes was killed by a fluke spear thrust that got behind his armor and pierced his heart.

It was a sad end to a great general who would have been a better ruler than the profligate and irresponsible Constantine Monomachos. Like many other military leaders, he understood little about politics and it was his undoing.

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Eileen Stephenson

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