A few months after finishing Tales of Byzantium, I realized that there was a missing story – one that provides a connection between the second story of Manuel Comnenus, and that of his great-granddaughter, Anna Comnena. I hope you enjoy it!
The Blinding of Roussel
By Eileen Stephenson
Alexios Comnenus’s prisoner, chattering like a magpie, had inched his horse back so they again rode side by side.
The cold November rain trickling down his spine and soaking through his clothes did not bother Comnenus. Nor did the mud splattering up all over him with every soggy, sucking step his horse took. His water skin was flat and empty and would do little to make the few crusts of twice-baked bread he carried more palatable.
The prisoner’s voice chattered on.
Comnenus was hungry, his head ached, and he needed to relieve himself, but that was no worse than usual on patrol. Even the fifty or so Turks lurking behind him, just out of sight and waiting for the gold he had promised to pay for their services assisting in the capture of his prisoner, seemed a minor concern.
“You know, Zeneral, zese people in zhe city, I do not sink zhey will be uh . . .” Roussel de Bailleul stopped, searching for the right word. The ropes tied around the man’s wrists inhibited the Frank from making his usual broad gestures. Comnenus glanced over at the long-suffering soldiers charged with the keeping of the Frank and winked. One of them grinned before making a face as though to vomit. Comnenus shook his head and tried without success to shut out the grating voice of the foreigner.
Their horses plodded on toward the town of Amaseia. This distant outpost of the empire held few attractions—a small marketplace and a few churches. Comnenus hoped for an inn or two where he and his men could get a few hours’ rest before continuing to the capital with their ever-talkative prisoner.
Yes, the most annoying thing Alexios Comnenus had to deal with at this moment was their infernal Frankish prisoner, blithering away in Greek so accented that half of what he said was incomprehensible and the other half baleful requests for mercy and his freedom. Not bloody likely after all the cretin had done.
Comnenus glanced to the gray sky and was relieved to see a break in the clouds. He turned to his captive, pushing his damp red hair back over his forehead. He drily finished Roussel’s sentence, “. . . welcoming you with a feast? No, I doubt they will. But they will be ecstatic to see you.” He grinned malevolently at his prisoner. “And I’m sure they will find a way to express their joy at seeing you again. Sadly, we won’t stay long. You have an appointment with the emperor.”
The Frank’s Adam’s apple bobbed up and down as he swallowed, trying to find the words that would save him.
“Zeneral, you know ze emperor wants me, so you must protect me from zhose people.” Roussel’s voice verged between bluster and wheedling, trying to flatter Comnenus with the title of general. Comnenus rolled his eyes at the ridiculous notion that he, at only eighteen and leading fewer than a hundred men, was a general.
“Perhaps you and your gang shouldn’t have robbed them, stolen their cattle, ravished their daughters, and burned their crops. You wouldn’t have so much to worry about then.”
“My men would never . . .” Roussel began outraged ranting before a glance at Comnenus’s skeptical face silenced him. That, and the sight of Amaseia’s gray walls that they were fast approaching.
A shout from Comnenus and the city gates opened wide to welcome him, his soldiers, and their captive. The rain slowed to a trickle, and he pushed back the hood of his cloak as they rode through the narrow cobbled streets to the city’s market square. The rain had washed away the usual city stench while the aromas of a thousand meals cooking on hearths taunted his empty stomach. He was looking for the city’s eparch, whose prison would house Roussel for the night. Faces peered out of windows and doors as their horses clopped through the narrow streets, eyes widening at the sight of the villain.
The news of Roussel’s capture spread through the city like shit through a pig. Crowds soon swarmed from houses to catch a glimpse of the notorious mercenary.
Comnenus expected the city’s leaders would soon be greeting him warmly, pressing gifts of gold coins into his palm in gratitude for ridding them of this renegade mercenary. He hoped their gifts would satisfy the Turks awaiting their pay. He looked forward to basking in the citizens’ gratitude—toasted as their savior. The pleasure of their praise would be a small reward for all the trouble he’d had capturing the man, and for putting up with his ceaseless chattering. God’s blood but his own three sisters did not babble on as much as this Frank did.
At first, all went as Comnenus had expected—huzzahs for him and his men; rotten fruit and a few turds thrown at Roussel. Comnenus had little sympathy for the man – he deserved that treatment after the devastation he and his gang had wreaked in this region over the past few months. Despite how bad that had been, the emperor only sent Comnenus out when Roussel began to call himself a prince. Even that frightened kitten of an emperor realized he had to do something then.
Alexios Comnenus modestly received the thanks and praise for finally retrieving this insolent Frank. Townspeople stopped to slap his back in congratulations and drop a few coins in his palm. Yes, he answered to the many questions, the man had been a difficult fish to catch, but he was no match for Roman cleverness. Comnenus sipped the wine from a cup thrust into his hand and ate from the plate of food a happy tavern keeper brought him, smiling and feeling the warm glow of accomplishment surround him.
He was jolted back to the reality of the drizzly day when a group of well-dressed men—obviously the city’s most prominent citizens as well as the eparch—approached him, serious faces on them all.
The angry men came quickly to the point.
“Your prisoner and ’is men committed terrible crimes: stealing cattle, banditry on our roads, assaulting our women. We want this Roussel punished ’ere and now,” said the eparch, a burly man in his forties with a salt-and-pepper beard, pounded his fist into the palm of the other hand. “It would only be fair. How can we know ’e won’t attack us again if we don’t witness it?” The man’s circle of friends stood behind him, nodding in firm agreement.
Comnenus swallowed hard, the bit of bread in his mouth suddenly dry and tasteless, the sweet wine turning to vinegar. The man had a point—the emperor was a softheaded sort and might let Roussel go. Even so, he had been told to capture the Frank and return him to Constantinople. He had no instructions to punish the man, nor was he eager for what that job might entail.
He glanced over at the prisoner, tied to a nearby pillar and being tormented by a group of boys throwing more crap at him. Comnenus asked the inevitable question, although he already suspected their answer.
“What sort of punishment do you think he deserves?”
The men shrugged and spread their hands wide, as though to indicate there was really only one choice. Which Comnenus knew. He was just praying the words would not be spoken, even as they were.
“We want ’im blinded.”
Alexios Comnenus almost flinched. He rubbed his sweaty palms on his shirt. The mood of the crowd around him had changed from one of relief and gratitude to one of fury, demanding retribution. At the back of his mind, he remembered the Turks waiting outside the gates, and still no gold for their pay. And the emperor expected him to bring Roussel back to Constantinople for punishment.
He looked nervously from one red, angry face to the other, wondering if he could put them off for a time. Perhaps he could find a way out of the city with his men and prisoner during the night before the deed had to be done.
“Might as well get on w’ it,” said the salt-and-pepper beard. “Get it done this evening.”
A knot of fear congealed in the pit of Comnenus’s stomach, and he could feel his heart beating wildly in his chest. It had been years since he had felt so afraid –-of someone more intimidating than the angry citizens of Amaseia, or the Turks eager for their gold, or even the emperor in the Great Palace of Constantinople.
He stared at the city leaders, outwardly the confident soldier he was, while his mind whirled in a dizzying search for a way out. Comnenus had grown up playing tricks on his four brothers and Aunt Donya’s two boys. He had learned to think fast to escape their retaliation or parental punishment, and gotten away with them most of the time.
Which reminded him that his cousin George would be arriving soon—bringing the wagons filled with Roussel’s loot. As a plan took shape in his head, he stifled a laugh at the thought of George’s reaction to it.
Comnenus put on a bored expression, as though he cared little what happened to the captive. Then he briefly laid out his terms to the eparch. The eparch consulted with the other men, before turning to Comnenus in agreement. The town leaders left for their houses while Comnenus and his soldiers dragged the smelly Roussel into the church to prepare for his punishment.
An hour and a half later, the townspeople standing in the market square watched as Comnenus’s soldiers carried out the blinding of Roussel on the porch of their church.
An Hour Later
George Dokeianos and his men approached Amaseia with the remnant of Roussel’s renegade band. Dokeianos looked forward to a dry bed for the night, some hot food, and a little wine after slogging through the countryside. The booty the Frank had stolen over the previous months filled the wagons returning to the city, to be handed back, as much as was possible, to its previous owners. Their wheels had often stuck in the mud, leaving them far behind Comnenus and the rest, who had gone ahead to the town.
Dokeianos felt pretty good about this little campaign. His younger cousin, Alexios Comnenus, had led their troops in the capture of that rascal, Roussel de Bailleul, in a matter of a few weeks. Alexios was turning into a good soldier and an even better leader of men than his own father had been, God rest his Uncle John’s soul, dead these past five years. Dokeianos was sure his cousin would rise high in the empire and meet the expectations of Alexios’s mother, Anna Dalassena.
Dokeianos and his men rode into the city, carts creaking and trundling as the sun sank lower. He could see people moving away from the town square, their faces full of grim satisfaction. It wasn’t exactly what he expected, and he inquired about it of a man who looked more gleeful than the rest.
“Didn’t you ’ear? The emperor’s men captured that bastard Roussel. They weren’t going to do it ’ere, but we paid ’em to blind the rascal. Right out there in the square, we all watched.” The man chuckled. “Payback for the cattle ’e stole from me. I might never see ’em cows again, but ’e won’t see nothin’ ever again.”
Dokeianos froze when he heard the word “blinded.” He could not believe his cousin would have done that. Had he lost his mind?
He urged his mount forward to see for himself what had happened. If the man had been correct—and there was no reason to disbelieve what he related seeing—well, he would not be the one to send word back to Constantinople about it. When the news arrived, the scene would be ugly. He himself might be tarred with some of the blame since they were cousins. Maybe it might be better to stay here in the field for the winter. He’d miss his wife and children, but . . .
He and his men reached the town square. Dokeianos saw his cousin on the steps to a church, leaning against a pillar and speaking with a well-dressed man with a salt and pepper beard. He dismounted, stretching to loosen his sore muscles before girding himself to approach Comnenus. The well-dressed man clapped Comnenus on the shoulder and passed him a fat leather pouch, a broad smile across his face as he bid the soldier good evening.
Dokeianos reached his cousin with a few quick strides and pulled the younger man back onto the church’s shadowed porch, where they could speak without being overheard.
“Alexios, tell me you didn’t do it,” Dokeianos demanded.
Comnenus raised an unperturbed eyebrow. “Didn’t do what, George?”
“Don’t play games with me. Do you think we’re still children playing with wooden swords? I’m speaking of the Frank. What did you do to him?”
Comnenus shrugged. “That man managed to rile up everyone in this town. They wanted—demanded—revenge. Did you think I could turn a mob back all by myself? Besides, you know as well as I do that the bastard deserved it.”
Dokeianos put his hands to his face, covering his eyes as though to blot out the sight of his once-promising young cousin.
“You know you’re going to have be the one to tell your mother what you’ve done. Don’t expect me to do it. I’m staying on this side of the Bosphorus until I hear she’s calmed down.” Dokeianos swallowed hard at the thought of what his aunt’s response would be to a blinding.
His aunt, the formidable Anna Dalassena, was no timid gynecaeum flower, shrinking into shadows and afraid to speak her mind. Barely over five feet tall, she ruled her children and anyone else who wandered into her orbit with the instincts of a general. Anna Dalassena had raised Dokeianos, his brother, and two sisters after their parents died, so he well knew how she would react to this news.
Anna Dalassena abhorred above all else the Roman custom of punishment by blinding. It had sickened her after witnessing a blinding when young, and on another occasion lost her cousin, Emperor Romanus, to its pernicious effects when political storms had pushed him off the throne. She had raised all of the children, but especially the boys who would be soldiers, to never condone or commit that terrible deed. Dokeianos would rather have suffered blinding himself than to experience Anna Dalassena’s reaction to news of what her own son had done.
Dokeianos glowered at his cousin, crossing his arms on his chest and ready to harangue him again. The sight of Comnenus’s mouth quirking down at his angst almost made him explode with anger. Comnenus grabbed him by the arm and dragged him into the church and over to a curtained alcove where soldiers were standing guard. Faint moans came from behind the curtain.
“Look. See for yourself.”
Dokeianos was shoved into the small room, where the Frank lay on a pallet, a bandage around his head, smelling putrid and moaning but not looking especially pained.
“Roussel, take off the bandage so my cousin can see how blind you are.” Comnenus stood looking down at his prisoner.
The burly Frank sat up and slid the wrappings off his head . . . and looked straight into Dokeianos’s eyes.
Dokeianos recoiled, not believing what he saw.
Comnenus was laughing then, bent double in glee at his cousin’s expression.
“You don’t think I could blind someone, do you? And then have to tell my mother? I’d rather have taken my chances with the mob than with her.”
Dokeianos rolled his eyes in a combination of relief and irritation that his cousin—the boy who had spend so much of his childhood playing tricks on the rest of the other children—could have fooled him again so well.
“So what really happened?” he asked while shaking his head.
“The people here wanted to see him punished today. They wouldn’t let me leave without doing something. And the Turks wouldn’t let us get far if they weren’t paid. I had to do something,” he explained, eyebrows quivering as they had when he’d gotten away with something as a child. “So I told the city fathers I’d blind Roussel, but since that would anger the emperor, who wanted to inflict his own punishment, I needed gold to soothe the imperial temper. They agreed, and while they scurried around collecting a bag of gold coins,” he dangled the fat leather pouch full of jingling coins in Dokeianos’s face, “I explained to Roussel that he would have to pretend to be blinded while one of my soldiers pretended to do the blinding.”
“Really? Couldn’t they see what was happening?”
Comnenus shrugged again. “They were in the square. We were on the church porch, five steps above them and it was getting dark. Even better, Roussel made a lot of noise, a whole lot of noise. He had no trouble doing that – he squealed like a pig about to be slaughtered. He should be on the stage.”
Roussel winked at Dokeianos and replaced his bandage before restarting the moaning. He clearly enjoyed his part in the subterfuge.
Dokeianos turned back to Comnenus, wondering how, at his age, he had again fallen for one of his cousin’s tricks. He sighed, imagining the laughter around the family dinner table a few days hence, with Comnenus recounting this story.
“We’ll leave in the morning, pay off the Turks, and head back to the city with Roussel wrapped in bandages,” his cousin said heartily. Dokeianos felt a cup of wine slipped into his hand as Comnenus clapped him jovially on the back. “Come on, George, you know I’d never blind anyone. My mother would kill me.”
The historian Anna Comnena recorded this event in her book, Alexiad, her fine history of the reign of her father, Alexios I Comnenus. The Byzantine Empire considered blinding a more humane punishment than execution despite the recipient often dying due to infection. The mother of Alexios Comnenus, Anna Dalassena, was known to detest blinding, and in the hundred years of Comneni rule with Alexios, his son John, and grandson Manuel, it was a rare punishment (but it came roaring back not long afterward).
Filial devotion was a much-lauded virtue in this period, and Alexios Comnenus was devoted to his mother. It was with her assistance that he took the throne a few years after this story, in 1081, and during the many years when he was busy fighting off invaders, he left her to rule in his stead. There was no one he trusted so much as the indomitable Anna Dalassena.
Even as late as the early twentieth-century, the poet Constantine Cavafy wrote this poem, “Anna Dalassena”:
In the golden bull that Alexios Comnenos issued
to prominently honor his mother,
the very sagacious Lady Anna Dalassené—
distinguished in her works, in her ways—
there are many words of praise:
here let us convey of them
a beautiful, noble phrase
“Those cold words ‘mine’ or ‘yours’ were never spoken.”
Constantine P. Cavafy (1927)
As for Roussel de Bailleul, he was imprisoned for a few years but never blinded. In 1077, the emperor freed him to help fight off another rebel. Roussel defeated the rebel but then switched sides and joined the rebellion before being captured by the emperor’s forces and finally executed.