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, his career spanned several tumultuous decades in the 11th century. He routed Arabs who occupied part of Syria in 1030 when he took a fortified town near Aleppo. Following a disastrous Roman loss to the Arabs at Aleppo, about 800 Arabs attacked Maniakes’s town. Maniakes promised the Arabs that he would surrender the next morning, sending food and adult beverages to the Arabs to celebrate. The Arabs celebrated too soon, drinking to excess, and allowing our hero to attack. He defeated them in the early hours of the day when they expected to take and plunder the town.
A couple of years later Maniakes attacked and held Edessa. This rich city was so prosperous that Maniakes sent 50 pounds of gold to the emperor annually. Later, the Orphanotrophos became concerned that Maniakes was becoming too powerful, and sent him to be the governor of Vaspurakan, a remote part of Armenia ceded to the Byzantines. But soon the emperor needed his talents elsewhere.
Sicilian Victory and Disaster
In 1038 the Emperor Michael IV assigned Maniakes the task of wresting back control over Sicily from the Arabs and North Africans (Carthaginians). He successfully won the island by 1039, but in 1040 the Carthaginians returned. A battle took place near the current town of Troina, west of Mt. Etna. Unfortunately, the emperor had sent his incompetent brother-in-law, Stephen, to “help” Maniakes. Before the battle Maniakes sent Stephen to secure the coast and prevent any Arabs/ Carthaginians from escaping. Maniakes felt confident he would win the battle.
The Roman army and Maniakes did win the battle. Stephen, of course, failed at his task, allowing the Carthaginian’s leaders to escape. 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, returning to the capital. The emperor soon had Maniakes arrested and hauled off to prison in Constantinople. He languished there 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.)
The new emperor, Michael V, did not last long, but long enough to release Maniakes prior to the summer of 1042. Empress Zoe soon dispatched the general to Bari in southern Italy (hopes for Sicily’s recovery abandoned by that time). There was unrest in the empire’s holdings, the last Byzantine foothold in Italy. Again, he began 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. Called La Skleraina, she had a brother, Romanos Skleros, who owned an estate in Anatolia adjacent to property Maniakes owned. The two neighbors did not have a cordial relationship. Once his sister moved into the Great Palace with the new emperor, Skleros took the opportunity to pillage and destroy villages that Maniakes owned. 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 suspect that he raped her.
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 with an army to stop Maniakes. However, the rebels defeated and killed Skleros. I’m not sure about this since a Romanos Skleros participated in the rebellion that brought Isaac Comnenus to the throne 10 years later. Still, given the distinct lack of originality in medieval naming habits, the later 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 a fluke thrust of a spear killed Maniakes when it got behind his armor, piercing his heart.
A sad end to a great general. He 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 undid him.