The Three Nikephoros Bryennios – Ever In the Shadow of the Comneni

Gold coin of Isaac I Comnenus
Gold coin of Isaac I Comnenus
Gold coin of Isaac I Comnenus.

The rulers of the Byzantine Empire rarely got a pass when it came to staying on the throne – if you didn’t keep the populace happy and the borders relatively secure, you were likely to be dethroned. If the former emperor were lucky, that meant retiring to a quiet monastery; if unlucky, he would be blinded or worse. The years following the death of Basil II in 1025 had their share of rebellions against the clutch of incompetent and/or greedy emperors that came after him. Oddly enough, there were three distinguished generals named Nikephoros Bryennios involved in rebellions in those years whose lot it was to have the Comneni overshadow them.

In 1057, the Emperor Michael VI Stratiotikos was just such an incompetent ruler, aggravating exactly the wrong crowd – the generals who controlled armies. A conspiracy to overthrow him developed among those generals who together decided that Nikephoros Bryennios (“the Ethnarch”) would be the one among them to be emperor after dethroning Michael VI. The conspiracy was moving along nicely when Bryennios’ plans were discovered by a bureaucrat loyal to the emperor and he was blinded. This did not deter the rest of the conspirators and their alternative was Isaac Comnenus, who seized the throne and was crowned on September 1, 1057 (Byzantine New Year’s Day).

More rebellions rose up twenty years later in 1077 when Michael VII Ducas was emperor. Two rebel leaders vied for the throne – another Nikephoros Bryennios (“the Elder”), and Nikephoros Botaneiates. Botaneiates got the upper hand and was crowned, although Bryennios continued the fight. Botaneiates sent a young general, Alexios Comnenus, to stop Bryennios. Comnenus was successful, capturing Bryennios and handing him over to Botaneiates who blinded the unsuccessful rebel. Four years later, of course, Alexios Comnenus would rebel against Botaneiates and take the throne for himself.

Another twenty years on in 1097, the now emperor Alexios I Comnenus was searching for a husband for his oldest daughter, Anna Comnena, then 14. His choice fell on the last Nikephoros Bryennios (“the Younger”) in our tale, then about 20. This Nikephoros Bryennios had perhaps taken the lessons on rebellion from his forebears to heart, desiring to keep both his eyes and life. So when Alexios died in 1118, he refused his wife’s entreaties to seize the throne from her brother, John II Comnenus. Anna Comnena was bitterly disappointed at her husband’s lack of support, eventually turning to writing a history of her father’s reign, Alexiad, a masterpiece which has survived largely in tact through the centuries.

It is difficult to know the actual family relationships between the three Nikephoros Bryennios. Medieval naming conventions meant that men often named their sons after their fathers, brothers, cousins, fathers-in-law; more rarely after themselves. There is no argument, though, that they would have all been members of the same powerful military family of the period.

All three of these Nikephoros Bryennii were respected and successful generals who would likely have ruled well. So it is interesting to see how the fates swung away from each of them to allow Isaac I Comnenus, Alexios I Comnenus, and John II Comnenus to rule in their stead.

You can read more about Anna Comnena and her Nikephoros Bryennios in my book of short stories – Tales of Byzantium, available on Amazon, and about Isaac Comnenus’ journey to the throne in my upcoming novel, Imperial Passions – The Porta Aurea.


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Eileen Stephenson

Eileen Stephenson

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