The Emperor’s Historians: John Kinnamos, Niketas Choniates, and the Reign of Manuel I Komnenos


Michael Goodyear

University of Chicago



Manuscript miniature of Manuel I (Wiki)

The reign of Manuel I Komnenos was a critical time in the history of the Byzantine Empire.[1] Lasting from 1143 to 1180, this was a time in which Byzantium had to find its place in the face of increasing globalization between East and West; yet only twenty-four years after Manuel’s death, the Byzantine Empire was greatly weakened and had succumbed to conquest by the Fourth Crusade causing modern historians to trace the causes of Byzantine decline to the reign of Manuel. Manuel is a controversial figure in Byzantine history whose memory has retained the old and naïve views of Byzantium as a land of intrigue, infighting, inefficiency, and opulence.     His complex foreign policy is well known to modern historians primarily due to the work of two historians, Niketas Choniates and John Kinnamos.[2]  Modern historians, however, have almost exclusively given far greater attention to Choniates due to his historical fame and seeming lack of bias.  This trend is dangerous to the study of Manuel’s reign and only by properly consulting the work of Choniates and that of Kinnamos can historians arrive at a better understanding of Manuel and his foreign policy.[3]  This article will enumerate the issue of consulting Kinnamos and Choniates when studying Manuel I by discussing the accounts of Choniates and Kinnamos on Manuel, then examining modern historians’ views on the issue, and finally addressing the accounts and personalities of Kinnamos and Choniates themselves to shed light on this historical controversy which has not previously been exclusively examined.

While Manuel’s reign is just one of the many reigns which Choniates covers, and is relatively brief, it is the primary focus of Kinnamos’ work.  Both historians reveal details that are hidden in the other’s work, so to achieve a full picture of Manuel’s reign one must consult both sources. The differences and problems of using just one source and the advantages of utilizing both can be examined not only by scrutinizing the personal histories of Kinnamos and Choniates, but also looking at the differences in their coverage of four crucial foreign policy factors in Manuel’s reign: the Second Crusade, Manuel’s multi-front policies between 1149 and 1171, Byzantine relations with Venice, and the Battle of Myriokephalon.  Choniates is often consulted more heavily by modern historians due to his seemingly lower bias and greater historical fame than Kinnamos, but it is crucial that modern historians utilize the history of Kinnamos on an equal level to Choniates in historical research on this period, since both sources work to support and correct the other, leading to a more complete understanding of the foreign policy and reign of Manuel I Komnenos.


The Reign of Manuel I


A hyperpyron, a form of Byzantine coinage issued by Manuel (Wiki)

Manuel had one of the longest reigns in Byzantine history. He came to the throne in 1143, succeeding his father, John II (r. 1118-1143), who had died from a poisoned arrow while in the region of Cilicia. As the fourth son of John, it was unlikely that he would become emperor, but Manuel was with John at his death and had the support of the Byzantine army. His supporters quickly secured Constantinople before news of John’s death had reached the city, all but ensuring Manuel’s successful ascension to the throne instead of his older brother Isaac. Once Manuel arrived in Constantinople, his reign began in earnest.

During the decades prior to Manuel’s reign, the Byzantine Empire had been increasingly surrounded by hostile forces: Seljuk Turks had conquered most of Anatolia (today’s Turkey), the Normans had expelled the Byzantines from Southern Italy, the Serbs were becoming restive in the north of the Byzantine Empire, Venetian merchants had strengthened their grip on Byzantine commerce, and the new Crusader states from Syria to Palestine had mixed relations with the Byzantine emperors. It was this multi-faceted situation with which Manuel now had to contend.

Although Manuel had parlayed with the Prince of Antioch, Raymond of Poitiers (r. 1136-1149), in 1144 and had led an expedition against the Seljuks at Konya in 1146, his first major test was the Second Crusade (1147-1149). Manuel was forced to accommodate the passage of two large armies, under Conrad III of Germany (r. 1138-1152) and Louis VII of France (r. 1137-1180). Although tensions were high, and outbreaks of violence did occur, both armies left Byzantine territory with relatively little damage or bloodshed in their wake. Later Manuel managed to make favorable agreements with both Conrad and Louis.

During the next twenty years, Manuel sent his armies to fight on various fronts. From 1156 to 1159, Manuel was engaged in forcing the Prince of Antioch, Reynald de Châtillon (r. 1153-1160), to bend the knee after Reynald had attacked Byzantine Cyprus in 1156. Throughout his reign Manuel was heavily involved in Italian politics, having his army occupy part of Norman Apulia from 1155 to 1158 in a prolonged conflict with William I of Sicily (r. 1154-1166), and maintaining a shifting system of alliances with Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa (r. 1155-1190), the Papal States, and several Italian city-states at great cost. From the late 1140s through the end of the 1160s, Manuel also sent several armies to quell Serb rebellions and fight against the Kingdom of Hungary. Manuel’s improvement of relations with the Crusader states over his reign culminated in a joint, but unsuccessful, siege by Byzantine forces and those of the Kingdom of Jerusalem against the strategic Egyptian city of Damietta in 1169. Byzantine relations with the Seljuk Turks during these years were mixed, involving several battles, but also the arrival of Seljuk Sultan Kılıç Arslan II (1156-1192) at Constantinople to parley for peace.


Manuscript miniature of Maria of Antioch with Manuel I (Wiki)

Since the reign of Manuel’s grandfather, Alexios I (r. 1081-1118), the Republic of Venice had gained considerable power in the Byzantine Empire, providing naval support to the Byzantine Emperors in exchange for substantial commercial advantages in Byzantium. John II had fought with Venice, but without success, and the initial treaty of Alexios I that had started this situation was confirmed. Resentment against these the terms of this treaty, which advantaged Venetian merchants at the sake of Byzantine ones, undoubtedly grew.  In 1171, this relationship between Byzantium and Venice came crashing down as Manuel ordered the seizure of Venetian property and the arrest of Venetians residing within the Byzantine Empire. Partially due to luck, the Byzantine Empire did not suffer any consequences of this action during Manuel’s lifetime.

The end of Manuel’s reign was marked by a low point: the Battle of Myriokephalon in 1176. In the battle the Seljuk Turks, once again at war with Byzantium, routed the Byzantine forces and the defeat is generally described as a substantial disaster. Despite this impression, however, there were no major long-lasting consequences of the battle itself, unlike the Battle of Mantzikert a century earlier which had led to the loss of most of Byzantine Anatolia.


Choniates and Kinnamos: Their Backgrounds and General Impression of Manuel’s Reign


Niketas Choniates, from a medieval munuscript (Wiki)

The historians Niketas Choniates and John Kinnamos provide the fullest primary accounts of Manuel’s reign. They were very different men in their backgrounds, beliefs, and experience.  Choniates was very well educated, and his writing ability in Greek prose, like Anna Komnena, was far above the level of most of his contemporaries.  We know from Niketas Choniates’ brother, Michael, that Choniates received a strong background in grammar, rhetoric, law, and politics in his education.[4]  Michael provided modern historians with many personal details of Choniates’ life in his Monodia, which presents a potential bias for modern historians as there is more information to support Choniates and give us a positive image of the man and his efforts.[5]

On the other hand, what we know of Kinnamos’ personal life is primarily from his own work.  Kinnamos was an average Byzantine bureaucrat.  He was reasonably well educated, and although he was Christian, “his real religion was the empire and the emperor: the empire as God’s vehicle for unifying mankind, the emperor as the chosen leader for His people”.[6]  Meanwhile Choniates was much more judgmental of the Byzantine emperors, not considering them either as divinely appointed or unassailable.  One example is the fact that he was a very moral man who was extremely critical of emperors such as Manuel for their sexual affairs.[7]

Both Kinnamos and Choniates served as imperial secretaries, but while Choniates rose to a high post in the bureaucracy, Kinnamos did not.  Kinnamos was an imperial secretary under Manuel, probably starting in the 1150s, while Choniates most likely was not an imperial secretary until the reign of Manuel’s son, Alexios II.  This is important because Kinnamos witnessed firsthand many of the events during Manuel’s reign while Choniates did not as he was not yet very high in the imperial bureaucracy.  These differences were present in the works of both historians and tie into the knowledge and accuracy of the sources especially in the fields of time and source material.

Although they seem to disagree on their estimation of Manuel, their evaluations of his foreign policy lead to remarkably similar conclusions. Choniates accused Manuel of shameful acts against the crusaders, including encouraging Turkish chieftains to attack crusader forces; however, even Choniates commended Manuel’s successful defensive handling of the Second Crusade while recognizing the great threat that the crusaders posed to the security of Byzantium.[8] Choniates believed that Manuel’s expensive foreign policy initiated the decline of the Byzantine Empire into ruin, but he also recognized the necessity of a strong Byzantine foreign policy.  Even if Choniates criticized the cost, he still supported the idea of a strong offensive policy to create the best defense for Byzantium, as citied in an example from the 1167 Hungarian campaign.[9] In fact, the only military ventures at which Choniates levels criticism are Manuel’s expedition against Egypt in 1169 and his handling of the wars against the Seljuk Turks from 1176 to 1179.[10] Choniates’ account of the events following Myriokephalon in 1176, however, are highly selective and do not paint a full picture of the international position of Byzantium following the defeat.[11] In addition, Choniates related that the Anatolian frontier still remained stable after Myriokephalon.[12] Although Choniates recognized the criticism of Constantinopolitans against Manuel’s favorable policy toward Latins,[13] he also considered Manuel’s actions a natural response to the ever-increasing power of the Western European states.[14] By making alliances and favorable overtures to some of the powers, he could keep the western nations divided and thus prevent the West from uniting its forces against Byzantium.

Kinnamos’ account is more outwardly supportive of Manuel’s foreign policy and applauds its success. He deemed Manuel’s diplomatic maneuvers in Italy necessary to cut off the threat of an invasion by Frederick Barbarossa.[15] Kinnamos also saw Manuel’s Levantine policy as based on two goals, maintaining both imperial authority in the region and the Crusader states’ dependence on Byzantium.[16] Kinnamos also did not align any decline of the Byzantine state with the reign of Manuel. Kinnamos’ position as the court historian leads to suspicion about a potential bias in his writings while Choniates’ critical observation seems less influenced by his position. Irrespective of Kinnamos’ personal opinion on Manuel’s reign, he is certainly a source to be consulted, especially on highly detailed aspects such as Manuel’s Italian policy, which is given minimal attention in the work of Choniates.


Through the Looking Glass: How Modern Historians See Manuel’s Reign


Map of Byzantine Empire under Manuel, c. 1180 (Wiki)

In most modern publications on Manuel I, Choniates is undoubtedly given higher precedence than Kinnamos when evaluating the success or failure of Manuel’s reign.  Owing to the skill of Choniates’ writings, his judgments and verdicts have been accepted over those of Kinnamos.  This trend can be traced back to the famous English historian Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), who began the condemnation of the “unjust” Manuel following the words of Choniates, whom Gibbon considered a noble historian.[17]  Ferdinand Chalandon (1875-1921) strictly adhered to Choniates’ belief that Byzantine decline began with Manuel.[18]  Since then, several historians have followed in Chalandon’s footsteps, over utilizing Choniates to condemn Manuel.  Alexander Vasiliev (1867-1953) strongly adhered to Choniates’ opinion, that “the erroneous policy of Manuel led the Empire again into the path of decline and this time into definite decadence.”[19]  Sir Steven Runciman (1903-2000) also followed this strictly Choniates line of thought.[20]  Michael Angold’s 1984 publication (the second edition was released in 1997), The Byzantine Empire, 1025-1204: A Political History, followed the perceived message of Choniates that Manuel’s engagement on multiple fronts diplomatically and militarily constituted a foolhardy and overly ambitious foreign policy which squandered Byzantine resources, contributing to Byzantine decline.[21] One of the most recent publications on this period, Warren Treadgold’s The Middle Byzantine Historians, deems Kinnamos to be near useless and simply lauding Manuel while Choniates, on the other hand, is a great historian who is the more correct and objective source on Manuel’s reign, despite Choniates’ own potential sources of bias that Treadgold himself mentions.[22]  Choniates has been far more respected than Kinnamos among this group of historians including some of the most famous Byzantinists in history, which creates a serious and dangerous precedent for later historians.

Choniates is without a doubt a very good historian, one who is recognized for his eloquent writing abilities that distinguish him as one of the great Byzantine historians of Middle and Late Byzantine History.  He is the only comprehensive source for Manuel’s successors and his work is crucial for its description of a rapid Byzantine decline following Manuel’s reign and especially for the fall of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade.  Choniates is a better writer than Kinnamos, but better writing abilities do not necessarily make one the better source.  More importantly, although Choniates is optimal for the period after Manuel, during Manuel’s reign, and especially for the early part of Manuel’s reign, Choniates is not at his finest.  His information is sparse in some areas, and he is just as tainted by potential bias as any historian.  Choniates is not an objective standard against which to measure Kinnamos, and the contents of Choniates’ history require scrutiny too.

There were some supporters of Manuel and his policies among past historians, but their numbers are small compared to the negative, pro-Choniates historians.  Hans von Kap-Herr (1857-1917) approved of Manuel’s foreign policy since it was pro-Western, but this basis was more on pro-Western bias than on a deep reading of Kinnamos.[23] Paolo Lamma also wrote a two-volume treatise in the mid-1950s that supported Manuel’s policy decisions, based on the close connections between internal and external policy as well as the tumultuous international relations of Manuel’s time.[24]

Recent historiography on Manuel has begun to counteract this Choniates inclined trend.  Paulo Magdalino’s 1993 publication, The Empire of Manuel I Komnenos, in opposition to past precedent, heavily utilized Kinnamos in comparison to Choniates, displaying Manuel’s foreign policy as a series of effective measures which only broke down under his weak successors. Magdalino believed that Manuel’s foreign policy built an international order favorable to Byzantium while Manuel’s territorial demands were “limited…focused on the east coast of Italy, the Dalmatian coast, a strip of land along the middle Danube, the coastal plain of Cilicia, and the coast of Egypt”.[25] Manuel reigned at a crucial time when Byzantium was becoming heavily involved in the politics of both the East and the West. Manuel’s policy was the logical response, which “adapt[ed] imperial policy to Latin expectations while still preserving an imperial dignity which his subjects could respect”.[26] Although Manuel’s foreign policy might have been effective under a strong ruler such as himself,[27] it shattered under his weak successors. Manuel’s young son Alexios II was quickly overthrown by Andronikos I whose violent reign ruined everything for which Manuel had worked.[28] The Fourth Crusade then dealt the deathblow to Manuel’s weakened Empire in 1204.

Although Magdalino tried to begin the trend of recognizing Kinnamos’ importance as a source on the reign of Manuel I, he did not create an ideal situation. He promoted the importance of Kinnamos while criticizing Choniates, portraying an image where Kinnamos could be seen as the more important historian for the period.[29]  The main problem with both of these usages is their strong preference between the writings of Choniates and Kinnamos.  Although both groups of historians consult both sources, one of the sources is given clear precedence by each group.  It is important that Magdalino’s work undermined the efficacy of the common Choniates-based retelling of Manuel’s reign, providing serious thought on the issue of how to analyze Manuel’s reign.  Magdalino’s work alone, however, has not changed the preeminent view among many Byzantinists on the preeminence of Choniates, as has been shown by the more recent works by Michael Angold and Warren Treadgold. It is also important that Magdalino tried to temper an excessive use of either historian with the use of lesser historical sources such as the works of Theophylact of Ochrid and Manganeios Prodromos.  Although this is of course important, Kinnamos and Choniates are still indisputably the most important, most comprehensive sources remaining on the reign of Manuel I.  A recent publication on Choniates, Alicia Simpson’s Niketas Choniates: A Historiographical Study, highlights just a few specific points of comparison between the texts of Kinnamos and Choniates.[30]

Both the works of Niketas Choniates and John Kinnamos are vital for understanding Manuel’s reign in full, and they should be consulted on an equal level rather than an uneven one in modern historiography.  Although this has been rare, it is not unprecedented. George Ostrogorsky, irrespective of his personal evaluation of Manuel’s reign, understood the necessity of both sources as well as their respective shortcomings while historians before and since him have come down strongly on either side of debate as to which historian is better for Manuel’s reign.[31]  Through examining the backgrounds, expertise, and coverage of both Choniates and Kinnamos, I hope to present the benefits of a more balanced type of historiography when studying Manuel and his reign.


Two Separate Paths: A Comparison of Choniates and Kinnamos

Time and source material are substantial factors in evaluating both Kinnamos and Choniates, in addition to the information the sources themselves provide.  Kinnamos most likely wrote his history in hindsight during the reign of Alexios II (1180-1183), given the references to Manuel’s passing and the ascension of Alexios.  Andronikos I (1183-1185) is also considered a potential enemy throughout the narrative, not a regent or emperor.[32] Choniates’ work, however, did not reach its final form until after the fall of Constantinople in 1204.  These are potential grounds for their perspectives, as Kinnamos wrote at a time when the memory of Manuel was still recent and the benefits of his reign still existed for the Byzantines.  Choniates, writing after the fall of Constantinople in 1204, provides a more critical standpoint, looking at the reasons why Constantinople fell and assigning blame, at least partially, to all of the emperors since John II.

Another factor in their works is the historians’ relationships with Manuel. Kinnamos was at least reasonably intimate with Manuel and knew him through observation and personal conversation, unlike Choniates who most likely never met the emperor.  For the bulk of his history, Kinnamos gathered information from either eyewitness reports or his own observations.  He seemed to have access to diplomatic records as well, since he is well versed in the details of communications between Manuel and other sovereigns.  Kinnamos related that “before I was even a youth I accompanied many of [Manuel’s] expeditions into both continents”.[33]  Choniates, meanwhile, had to rely on entirely eyewitness accounts for this period, thus lacking the autopsy of Kinnamos. Choniates did not seem to have access to imperial archives from Manuel’s reign, since he is ignorant of many important diplomatic negotiations during Manuel’s reign that are known to us through Kinnamos, such as Manuel’s negotiations with the Conrad III and Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. Choniates’ information on the Second Crusade and the Italian Campaign are especially sparse and even inaccurate when compared to Kinnamos.

Since Kinnamos’ work was completed before Choniates was most likely writing, he theoretically could have used it, but Choniates claims to be starting his history where previous historians had stopped, with the death of Alexios I.  Choniates related that he was walking “a desolate and untrodden road, a much more difficult task than following the footsteps of others who have gone before or than holding to the straight and smooth royal highway without straying”.[34]  Yet, as Alicia Simpson has noted, this quote shows that Choniates was at least familiar with the work of Kinnamos, since Choniates was critical of writing from the royal standpoint, which has been perceived to be that of Kinnamos.[35]  Regardless of the extent to which Choniates might have used Kinnamos’s work for his own history, he was most likely at least familiar with it.  Another hint towards being familiar with Kinnamos’ work is the fact that Choniates specifically mentions Kinnamos in his work, so he knew of him at the very least.[36]

Although Kinnamos and Choniates differ on their respective views of Manuel as a person, there are general trends that can be seen in both sources.  Manuel was extremely brave in campaigns, fighting in hand-to-hand combat, and rushing into a melee.[37]  Sometimes this was even against the interests of his own safety, since he acted rashly in dangerous situations that could have ended in his demise.  Manuel also had great physical strength.  Bertha-Irene, his first wife, described him to Kinnamos, stating her opinion that “she had never heard of any who boasted so many feats in a single year”.[38]  Manuel was also extremely generous with wealth.  In fact, early in his reign he was described by Choniates as “a sea of munificence, an abyss of mercy”.[39]  But Choniates also blames Manuel for going to Constantinople to secure his crown in 1143 rather than save soldiers captured by the Turks.  Choniates goes on to describe Manuel as being sexually licentious and even having sexual relations with his blood relations.[40]  Through using both sources we can see a fuller picture of who Manuel was as a person rather than just an emperor.


“A Cloud of Enemies:” Choniates and Kinnamos on Manuel’s Foreign Policy

When Manuel became emperor, the number of states in Europe and the Middle East had exponentially grown over the previous century. There were many more players on the world stage than there were even fifty years prior, and that situation was a crucial aspect of Manuel’s reign. This foreign policy for a new world was a hallmark of Manuel’s reign, and an important part of understanding Manuel’s rule. There were four particularly crucial foreign policy factors in Manuel’s reign: the Second Crusade, Manuel’s multi-front policies between 1149 and 1171, Byzantine relations with Venice, and the Battle of Myriokephalon. The accounts of Choniates and Kinnamos, along with their respective advantages and shortcomings, provide a fuller image of Manuel’s foreign policy as imperfect, but also robust and usually effective.

The differences between Choniates and Kinnamos are especially striking in their telling of the Second Crusade.  The Second Crusade (1147-1149) was a key international event that affected Byzantium early in Manuel’s reign and was described by Choniates as “a cloud of enemies, a dreadful and death-dealing pestilence, [which] fell upon the Roman borders”.[41]  Kinnamos placed much emphasis on the Second Crusade in his account due to its significance. The passing of the Second Crusade through Byzantine lands was not without problems, and Byzantine citizens were attacked by German troops, and Byzantine forces even clashed with German ones while Conrad initially flouted Byzantine diplomatic overtures until his own defeat by Byzantine arms.[42]  Kinnamos blamed the Germans for the conflicts.  Meanwhile the passage of the French was much more peaceful, since Louis VII was amenable to making friendly overtures to Manuel.  Choniates only provided a few paragraphs on the Second Crusade, giving it a relatively minor role in his history.  Unlike Kinnamos, Choniates blamed the Byzantines for their conduct against the Germans, describing injudicious actions by the Byzantine people.  In addition, he related dishonest actions by Manuel himself connected to providing debased coinage for German use and implicated Manuel in possibly cheating the Germans in regards to the sale of basic foodstuffs.[43]  Choniates even implicated Manuel in inciting the Seljuk Turks to attack the Crusading soldiers once they had crossed in Anatolia.[44]  In this case the two accounts present very different pictures.

Kinnamos had more background in the Second Crusade.  His amount of detail is staggering compared to Choniates, and the event was much closer to his own time, providing him with a greater number of more accurate sources. There is also a logical question to ask in regards to Choniates’ implication regarding Manuel encouraging the Seljuk Turks to attack the crusading army: why would he have done this?  Manuel’s agreements with Conrad and Louis were beneficial to Manuel, and the crusading armies were going east to fight Muslim adversaries; after they had passed through Byzantine lands, they were little threat to Byzantium. Manuel was diplomatically astute enough to manage to achieve beneficial agreements with Conrad on his return to Constantinople after the Second Crusade, which achieved basic alliances between the leaders.[45]  The agreement with Conrad was especially beneficial for countering the Normans and furthering Byzantine influence in Italy. Germany was crucial to Manuel’s foreign policy in Italy, and any destruction of German arms and especially the death of Conrad would be detrimental to Manuel’s own policy.  Manuel had also made a favorable agreement with Louis according to Kinnamos so hurting French arms could only be worse for Manuel.  In addition, the Seljuks had until recently been at war with the Byzantines, not leaving those states with exactly amicable relations. In addition, the Seljuks did not need to be incited by Manuel to want to attack an invading crusader army that was marching through Seljuk land.  Curiously, Choniates never explicitly names Louis and in fact blurs the distinction between the French and German forces.  In addition, he makes no mention of Conrad’s return visit to Constantinople that was of so beneficial to Manuel and Byzantium.  During the time of the Second Crusade, Kinnamos’ detail is far more valuable and does not have the gaping problems present in the section of Choniates’ work dedicated to this crusade.

After the Second Crusade, Manuel’s foreign policy became particularly assiduous, as Manuel became active on every front of his empire. Manuel was militarily engaged on multiple fronts, both in Europe and Asia, at almost any given time in his reign, but especially during the period from 1149 to 1171.  Manuel’s foreign policy encompassed a variety of areas, but it always had guiding principles.  In the case of Italy and the Balkans, this early principle was protecting Byzantium’s borders and prestige. After the conclusion of the unsuccessful Second Crusade, Manuel attacked the Normans in Southern Italy and the Serbs in the Balkans to avenge their attacks on Byzantine territory and sustain the prestige of Byzantium.  Manuel attacked Hungary, an ally that had aided the Serbs, to preempt attacks by this state on Byzantium itself.  Kinnamos relates that Manuel meted out retaliation against peoples who flouted Byzantine authority dealing revenge on the Cumans and Normans who had attacked the Byzantine people.[46]  In 1155, Manuel launched an invasion of Norman Apulia in Southern Italy that initially gained great success under the generals Palaiologos and Doukas. Manuel sent regular shipments of reinforcements from Byzantium to assist his troops in Italy.  In this vein, Manuel could apply significant military pressure on his enemies to force an agreement.

In addition to the Normans, the Serbs, and Hungary, Manuel used military arms to achieve success in Asia.  Antioch had already been subdued by Manuel in the early years of his reign, but Reynald de Châtillon, the new Prince of Antioch, made demands and threatened Manuel in 1156 by raiding Cyprus.  Manuel led an army into the region and forced Reynald into servile penance, “going unshod through [Antioch]…a rope bound his throat…while he [Reynald] bound himself with oaths to many things, to wit that he would act according to the emperor’s will”.[47]  Manuel’s reentry into Antioch in 1159 was especially symbolic for his role in Levantine politics, as Reynald “and the nobles of Antioch [were] running on foot around the imperial horse, and Baldwin [III of Jerusalem (r. 1143-1163)], a crowned man, paraded a long way behind on horseback, but without insignia”.[48]  Manuel could also raise vast multinational armies, such as the large army raised in the 1160s against the Seljuk Turks, which included contingents of his vassals and allies, such as Serbs, Cilician Armenians, and Jerusalemites. This large force resulted in significant gains by forcing the enemy to sue for peace.  Similarly, as master of the Levant, Manuel prepared to attack the leading Muslim power in the region, Nur ad-Din, but ad-Din released his Christian captives and agreed to become an ally of Manuel in Asia to avoid fighting his armies.[49]  Choniates spends little time on affairs in the Levant despite the importance of the Second Crusade and Manuel’s foreign policy in that region, so Kinnamos is vital to modern knowledge in these areas.   The trends in Manuel’s foreign policy that occurred in the Middle East are closely related to those in Europe.

In the narratives of both Choniates and Kinnamos, a general trend can be seen in Manuel’s foreign policy relating to his treaties and agreements.  The Grand Župan of the Serbs, Stefan Nemanja (r. 1166-1196) was forced to pledge eternal obedience to Manuel several times and the King of Hungary “promised…to obey [Manuel] in everything he wished”.[50]  The Normans, following the damage that Byzantine forces has inflicted on their territories, asked Manuel for peace on the terms of Manuel receiving captives and whatever spoils had been taken in Italy in addition to their king, William I, becoming Manuel’s ally.  Manuel entertained Kılıç Arslan II in Constantinople and impressed him with the riches of the capital and his treasury by providing a large gift to Kılıç Arslan, which led Kılıç Arslan to return captured cities and become a suppliant of the emperor.[51]


Manuel and the envoys of Amalric, d. 13th cen. (Wiki)

In all of these cases, the foreign heads of state are cowed by Manuel and give him oaths of obedience or friendship.  Choniates hit upon the problem with this trend.  He laments, “How unreasonable a thing wickedness is and how difficult it is to guard against it”.[52]  Through trusting these oaths, Manuel made a grave mistake and lacked foresight in his foreign affairs.  Hungary and Serbia broke their agreements repeatedly during Manuel’s reign.  Choniates perhaps best described this problem with the example of Kılıç Arslan, whose behavior was “changing with the seasons in the fashion of barbarians, when in need he was inordinately humble but he was highflying whenever Fortune tipped the scales in his favor”.[53]  It even affected the outcome of military campaigns, as both Choniates and Kinnamos blamed the corruption and poor faith of Amalric I of Jerusalem (r. 1163-1174) on the failure of the Byzantine campaign against Egypt in 1169.[54]  Kinnamos also recognized that some states could not be trusted and stated that Antiochenes were natural oath-breakers.[55]   Both historians agreed that Manuel had the authority to create these favorable agreements in the first place, but he probably placed too much trust in these oaths since he was dealing with human nature, which is always shifting as evidenced by the constant betrayal of Manuel and the oaths to him by foreign powers.

In addition to interstate agreements, Manuel also used bribery to achieve his foreign policy goals in Italy.  In Choniates’ view, Manuel’s foreign policy can be summarized as a policy “to buy their friendship with money and to convince them by feats of arms not to pour over his borders”.[56]  Manuel used bribery and offers of support to initially gain the loyalty of Italians under Norman rule, gaining greater initial success against King William.  Manuel later assisted the Lombard League, a coalition of Northern Italian cities, in Italy in fighting for autonomy against Conrad’s successor, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, who was becoming a threat to Byzantium.[57] Kinnamos saw these actions as beneficial to Manuel’s aims as they helped to preoccupy dangerous enemies such as the Normans and Frederick Barbarossa and not allow them to concentrate on attacking Byzantium.  Choniates, on the other hand, thought that “such was the outcome of Emperor Manuel’s struggles in Sicily and Calabria that the lavish and huge sums of money poured into them served no useful purpose to the Romans, nor did they bring lasting benefits to succeeding emperors”.[58]  Although their interpretations of the benefits of this policy are different, they agree that this was the imperial policy.  It is difficult to draw an exact answer as to whether or not the policy was beneficial, since it did achieve its aim of preventing aggressive warfare by those potential enemies, but in the long-term it might not have been cost-effective, especially when Manuel’s successors were too weak to enforce Byzantine authority.  At the very least, both historians provide us with better knowledge of Manuel’s diplomatic practices.  Between Manuel’s militarily forced oaths and bribery, “there were no cities in Italy or even in more distant regions where [he] did not have someone sworn to be faithful to his cause”.[59]

Manuel also utilized personal relations to his benefit in foreign policy.  Manuel’s involvement in Hungary in 1163 is placed in the light of him defending the property rights of Hungarian Prince Béla, Manuel’s protégée who was at that time promised in marriage to his daughter.  In fact, Manuel made Béla (also known by his new Greek name, Alexios), as the future husband of his daughter, his heir-apparent, since at that time Alexios II was not yet born.[60]  Kinnamos does not mention that Béla became Manuel’s heir, so it is helpful in this case that Choniates provides information that is lacking in Kinnamos’ history.  When Manuel’s son Alexios was born in 1169, Alexios became the new heir apparent, and thus there was no place for Béla in the line to the throne, especially after Manuel separated him from his formerly betrothed daughter.  When the Hungarian throne became vacant, however, Manuel readily supported Béla in taking the throne, and Béla supported him for the rest of his life, creating peace between the Hungarian and Byzantine states.[61]  Manuel also defeated the ambitious Serb leader Stefan Nemanja, with the result that “Nemanja feared Manuel more than the wild animals fear the king of beasts”, forcing him to adhere to Manuel.[62]  Nemanja’s personal fear gave Manuel more direct influence over the actions of the Serbs.

Meanwhile, Byzantine problems with the Venetians had been building since Alexios I’s initial pact with them in 1092 during the war against Robert Guiscard.  In addition to issues over trade privileges, there were complications with the Venetians as military allies against the Normans.  The Venetians added insult to injury on the island of Kerkyra, where the Venetians “acclaimed [a certain black-skinned Ethiopian] emperor of the Romans and led him about in procession with a splendid crown on his head, ridiculing the sacred imperial ceremonies and mocking Emperor Manuel”.[63] Manuel “swallowed his anger for the one day, yet he nursed rancor in his heart like an ember buried in ashes until the opportunity came for him to kindle it”.[64]  The problems with the Venetians boiled over in 1171 when Manuel led a statewide arrest of all Venetians and the confiscation of all Venetian goods inside the empire.[65]  In retaliation Venice attacked Byzantine possessions in the Ionian Sea, but were eventually convinced to make peace upon the repayment of their losses.  Choniates cites the origin of this attack on the Venetians as one largely of personal anger due to the insult against him at Kerkyra,[66] while Kinnamos places the rationale behind the attack on the fact that the Venetians held the Empire in an economic vice grip since Alexios I’s initial agreements with them and that they arrogantly treated Byzantium as their personal property.[67]  Kinnamos was hostile to the Latins, whether they are Normans, Venetians, Crusaders, or the Papacy, unless they were acting in accordance with Manuel’s wishes or are related to him, since Manuel’s father-in-law, Raymond of Poitiers, and Alexios II’s father-in-law, French King Louis VII, are exceptions to Kinnamos’ hostility.  Choniates describes the Latins, and the Venetians especially, as “boastful, undaunted in spirit, lacking all humility, and trained to be ever bloodthirsty”.[68]  Although they place different reasons behind the decision of Manuel to persecute the Venetians within Byzantium, both Kinnamos and Choniates express deep hatred of the Venetians, illustrating Byzantine popular anger against these people.

In 1173, the peace Manuel had made with Kılıç Arslan was broken, as was rather likely. Choniates admits, “peace [was] inimical to [Kılıç Arslan’s] enrichment, whereas it was always most profitable to have his Turks pour over the Roman borders”.[69]  According to Kinnamos Manuel brought up a large army at Dorylaion,[70] but then Kinnamos’ history breaks off mid-sentence, placing sole dependence on Niketas Choniates for our understanding of the battle and the final years of Manuel’s reign.  Manuel’s army, despite its size, was attacked by dysentery, and was weakened while the Turkish army had received reinforcements from Mesopotamia.  This and other tactical errors led to an utter rout of the Byzantine army in 1176 at the Battle of Myriokephalon where Manuel himself barely escaped capture.  When Kılıç Arslan offered peace after the Battle of Myriokephalon, he offered relatively generous terms, only demanding the destruction of two recent fortifications, to which Manuel readily agrees.  Choniates portrays the Battle of Myriokephalon as a disaster of monumental proportions.[71]  Certainly the battle was the worst disaster of Manuel’s reign, but it also did not reverse all of the successes he had previously won.  The Byzantine army was still strong enough to defeat a Turkish army that attacked settlements in the Meander Valley shortly afterwards,[72] and Manuel continued his successful diplomatic initiatives in the West until he died in 1180.


Separate They Fall, Together They Stand

 Both Choniates and Kinnamos have significant biases in their works.  Choniates almost uniformly denigrates the emperors under which he had lived.  Embittered and marked by the calamity of his times, namely the fall of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade, Choniates wrote with an acid pen against all of the emperors from Manuel through Alexios V (1204), seeing them as contributing to the disaster of 1204.  Choniates criticized Manuel for many things such as raising taxes, practicing nepotism, and especially his focus on astrology since astrology was a foolish pastime in Choniates’ opinion.[73]  Perhaps ironically, Choniates cited various prophecies and curses throughout his history while Kinnamos mentions none.  Choniates specifically included Manuel’s strict belief in the αἷμα (aima) prophecy, where the emperors of the Komnenian Dynasty would reign in order of the first letters of their name in order of the letters in the Greek word for blood, αἷμα.[74]

Kinnamos’ description of Manuel and his reign was somewhat panegyrical in its composition.  Kinnamos described Manuel as hero-like due to his skill in battle.[75]  Since Kinnamos was most likely writing his work during the reign of Manuel’s son and the regency of Manuel’s wife, it would have been highly beneficial for him to praise the reign of Manuel.  In some cases, Kinnamos seemed to suppress historical facts that were unfavorable to Manuel since they are included in Choniates’ account.  Kinnamos tries to counteract the obvious potential biases that would be claimed against him by describing himself as “naturally unsuited to flattery, nor [willing to] allow the slightest expression to pass except truly and unfetteredly,” taking courtly tales as the mere stories of those continuously in the palace, until he observed Manuel’s strength with his own eyes.[76]  Looking at just their biases, Choniates is better about the recent Byzantine past while Kinnamos praises Manuel to extremes.

While these biases present significant difficulties in deducing historical fact, the works of Choniates and Kinnamos serve to both support and correct each other.  Information about certain facts such as Manuel’s physical strength or his foreign policies are supported in both texts, providing a more definite understanding of those parts of Manuel’s person and reign.  There are biases or lack of information in both sources that are countered by consulting the other source on an equal level.  Combining the sources not only helps us to recreate a more objective, complete, and neutral impression of Manuel, but also gives us more specific information about his reign.  Kinnamos had greater access to state records and had autopsy in his history while Choniates included more about public beliefs, such as prophetic lore, and the aftermath of his reign.  It also provided us with two sets of interpretations, such as Choniates’ judgment of the oaths of foreigners, which can benefit modern understanding.  Despite his sometimes-harsh judgment of Manuel, Choniates concludes that “his thoughts and actions were both sound and reasonable; and shortly after this wise helmsman was cast overboard by circumstances, the ship of state sank”.[77]  In short, Manuel was neither the primary cause of Byzantium’s decline nor a perfect emperor.  He was a man with errors and problems that could have perhaps been fixed, but he was also a competent and successful ruler whose foreign policy greatly improved the Byzantine Empire’s international reputation.  This full picture of Manuel is only possible through analyzing both Choniates and Kinnamos and not depending heavily on just Choniates, regardless of his fame and writing ability, to determine historical fact.


About the author

Michael Goodyear recently graduated with honors from the University of Chicago with a B.A. in History and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, as well as a minor in Latin American Studies. The focus of his research was on Byzantine history.

Recommended citation

Goodyear, Michael. “The Emperor’s Historians: John Kinnamos, Niketas Choniates, and the Reign of Manuel I Komnenos.” Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History 7, no.1 (April 2017).


[1] I am indebted to Walter Kaegi for first suggesting this topic to me and providing me with suggested books and articles. I am also indebted to Paul Magdalino for inspiration from his work, The Empire of Manuel I Komnenos, both on this specific topic and on the reign of Manuel in general.

[2] Although Manuel is mentioned in a variety of sources from other peoples, he is only mentioned in passing as he is not the main historical subject of those works.  This article focuses only on the primary two historians of Manuel’s reign, Niketas Choniates and John Kinnamos.

[3] My own method of investigation for this issue was focused on first reading the accounts of Kinnamos and Choniates before looking at the secondary sources to avoid any outside influences on the issue.  Although I consulted the Greek originals of both texts, for accessibility to a wider audience I used the good English translations of both Kinnamos and Choniates by Charles Brand and Harry Magoulias respectively.  I also found that the problem of source consultation for Manuel’s reign is just as endemic in works on the era of Komneni as it is in histories of the entire Byzantine Empire.

[4] Michael Choniates, Michael Akominatou tou Choniatou ta Sozomena, Vol. 1, ed. Spyridon P. Lambros, 347-348 (Athens, 1879-1880). The Monodia is one of the writings of Michael Choniates included in this compendium by Spyridon Lampros. It was written by Michael as a eulogy for his younger brother, Niketas.

[5] Choniates, Michael Akominatou tou Choniatou, 345-366.

[6] Kinnamos, Deeds of John and Manuel Comnenus, 2.

[7] Choniates, O City of Byzantium: Annals of Niketas Choniates, 80, 116.

[8] Choniates, O City of Byzantium, 38.

[9] Choniates, O City of Byzantium, 89.

[10] Choniates, O City of Byzantium, 91, 99-107.

[11] Paul Magdalino, The Empire of Manuel I Komnenos, 1143-1180 (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 99.

[12] Choniates, O City of Byzantium, 109-112.

[13] During this period it was common for the Byzantines to refer to Western Europeans collectively as “Latins.” This distinction was based in the peoples of Western Europe speaking primarily Latin for religious and diplomatic purposes, while the Byzantines spoke Greek. The term, never a particularly positive one, gained especially negative connotations after the sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1204.

[14] Choniates, O City of Byzantium, 113-115.

[15] John Kinnamos, Deeds of John and Manuel Comnenus, trans. Charles M. Brands (New York: Columbia University Press, 1976), 172-173, 196-197.

[16] Kinnamos, Deeds of John and Manuel Comnenus, 141-143.

[17] Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (New York: Penguin Classics, 1996), 620-625.

[18] Ferdinand Chalandon, Les Comnène: Ètudes sur l’Empire byzantin aux XIe et XIIe siècles, ii: Jean II Comnène (1118-43) et Manuel I Comnène (1143-80) (New York: Burt Franklin Research and Source Works, 1971), 607. Chalandon’s work is one of the first works dedicated entirely to the Komnenian dynasty and is still important for historians of the period.

[19] A. A. Vasiliev, History of the Byzantine Empire. 2nd ed. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1952), 432. Vasiliev’s work, published in both Russian and English, was an early twentieth century comprehensive history of Byzantium, which gave attention in each period to the primary sources and their attributes.  Kinnamos is given minimal attention.

[20] Steven Runciman, A History of the Crusades: The Kingdom of Jerusalem and the Frankish East 1100-1187, Vol. 2, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1952), 413-4. Runciman is one of the greatest Byzantinists, yet in this case his knowledge is not necessarily critical.  The primary focus of this work was on the Latin Levant, not Manuel, although he is mentioned.  Runciman’s wide renown, however, influences many issues of Byzantine studies, including this one.

[21] Michael Angold, The Byzantine Empire, 1025-1204: A Political History, 2nd ed. (London: Longman, 1997), 225. Angold’s history of the period between the death of Basil II and the Fall of Constantinople to the Fourth Crusade is an important source for this era and one of the most recent. The second edition was written after Paul Magdalino’s The Empire of Manuel I Komnenos and addresses Magdalino’s work in a derisory manner. Angold’s conclusions on Manuel’s reign are based near exclusively on the writings of Choniates and he himself states that Kinnamos should not be consulted seriously, simply because of his potential bias, while ignoring the same potential problem with Choniates.

[22] Warren Treadgold, The Middle Byzantine Historians (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 414-416, 437-440, 454. Although Professor Treadgold’s work earlier in this book, especially on the ninth century, , his work on the final two historians, Kinnamos and Choniates, leaves much to be desired.  Kinnamos is given barely any credence while Choniates is deemed the best historian of the entire Middle Byzantine period. It is critical to remember that although writing style is certainly important, so are facts.  Choniates is without a doubt a better writer than Kinnamos, but he is not necessarily more accurate and in many areas falls short of a comprehensive summary of Manuel’s foreign policy in comparison to Kinnamos.

[23] Hans von Kap-Herr Die abendländische Politik Kaiser Manuels, mit besonderer Rücksicht auf Deutschland (Strausbourg: 1881). Kap-Herr, although biased, was important as being the first historian to undertake any in-depth critique of Choniates’ account of Manuel.

[24] Paolo Lamma. Comneni e Staufer. Ricerche sui rapport fra Bisanzio e l’Occidente nel secolo XII, 2 vols. (Rome: 1955-1957).

[25] Paul Magdalino, The Empire of Manuel I Komnenos, 1143-1180 (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 2-3, 105. Magdalino’s work is groundbreaking in its fair usage of Kinnamos alongside Choniates to come to a more positive conclusion on Manuel’s reign and his foreign policy.

[26] Magdalino, Empire of Manuel I Komnenos, 490.

[27] Constantine Paparregopoulos, Ιστορία του ‘Ελληνικού Έθνους, 2nd ed. (Athens: 1887), IV, 519-525. Paparregopoulos links the personal attributes and valor of Manuel to entirely maintain an illusion of power during Manuel’s reign, which fell apart under his less capable successors.

[28] Magdalino, Empire of Manuel I Komnenos, 490.

[29] Magdalino, Empire of Manuel I Komnenos, 4, 478.

[30] Alicia Simpson, Niketas Choniates: A Historiographical Study (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 215-220.

[31] George Ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine State. 2nd ed. Trans. Joan Hussey (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1969), 351-353.

[32] Kinnamos, Deeds of John and Manuel Comnenus, 13.

[33] Kinnamos, Deeds of John and Manuel Comnenus, 14.

[34] Choniates, O City of Byzantium, 39.

[35] Simpson, Niketas Choniates, 215-216.

[36] Choniates, O City of Byzantium, 183.

[37] Kinnamos, Deeds of John and Manuel Comnenus, 33, 42, 55, 81.

[38] Kinnamos, Deeds of John and Manuel Comnenus, 51.

[39] Choniates, O City of Byzantium, 35.

[40] Choniates, O City of Byzantium, 32.

[41] Choniates, O City of Byzantium, 35.

[42] Kinnamos, Deeds of John and Manuel Comnenus, 61-66.

[43] Choniates, O City of Byzantium, 38-39.

[44] Choniates, O City of Byzantium, 39.

[45] Kinnamos, Deeds of John and Manuel Comnenus, 69, 71-72.

[46] Kinnamos, Deeds of John and Manuel Comnenus, 76-78.

[47] Kinnamos, Deeds of John and Manuel Comnenus, 136-139.

[48] Kinnamos, Deeds of John and Manuel Comnenus, 143.

[49] Kinnamos, Deeds of John and Manuel Comnenus, 143-144.

[50] Kinnamos, Deeds of John and Manuel Comnenus, 105.

[51] Kinnamos, Deeds of John and Manuel Comnenus, 158; Choniates, O City of Byzantium, 69.

[52] Choniates, O City of Byzantium, 63.

[53] Choniates, O City of Byzantium, 70.

[54] Kinnamos, Deeds of John and Manuel Comnenus, 201; Choniates, O City of Byzantium, 91-95.

[55] Kinnamos, Deeds of John and Manuel Comnenus, 179.

[56] Choniates, O City of Byzantium, 113.

[57] Kinnamos, Deeds of John and Manuel Comnenus, 174.

[58] Choniates, O City of Byzantium, 58.

[59] Choniates, O City of Byzantium, 114.

[60] Choniates, O City of Byzantium, 78.

[61] Kinnamos, Deeds of John and Manuel Comnenus, 215; Choniates, O City of Byzantium, 96.

[62] Choniates, O City of Byzantium, 90-91.

[63] Choniates, O City of Byzantium, 51.

[64] Choniates, O City of Byzantium, 51.

[65] Kinnamos, Deeds of John and Manuel Comnenus, 210-211; Choniates, O City of Byzantium, 97-98.

[66] Choniates, O City of Byzantium, 97-98.

[67] Kinnamos, Deeds of John and Manuel Comnenus, 210-211.

[68] Choniates, O City of Byzantium, 113.

[69] Choniates, O City of Byzantium, 99.

[70] Kinnamos, Deeds of John and Manuel Comnenus, 224.

[71] Choniates, O City of Byzantium, 107-108.

[72] Choniates, O City of Byzantium, 109-110.

[73] Choniates, O City of Byzantium, 55-56.

[74] Choniates, O City of Byzantium, 83, 96.

[75] Kinnamos, Deeds of John and Manuel Comnenus, 88.

[76] Kinnamos, Deeds of John and Manuel Comnenus, 146.

[77] Choniates, O City of Byzantium, 115.


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