John II Komnenos, mosaic in Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
John II Komnenos was one of, if not the greatest of the Komnenian emperors to rule the Roman Empire. Throughout his quarter of a century on the throne of Constantinople (1118-1143), he moulded the Roman army into a respectable and successful force through a series of annual, well-prepared campaigns with limited but achievable objectives. With the addition of some clever diplomatic decisions, John II was able to isolate and defeat a variety of enemies – Pechenegs, Serbs, Hungarians and Seljuk Turks – bringing some security to imperial frontiers and heartlands.1
His successes were particularly impressive in Anatolia, where the empire was still feeling the effects of the disaster of Manzikert in 1071. Through attritional warfare, John II managed to put the Turks on the defensive, retaking various towns and fortresses and enforcing the empire’s suzerainty over the Crusader States. John looked to go further, invading Muslim Syria, capturing several more towns and would perhaps have done better had his Crusader allies not been so disinterested. Prince Raymond of Antioch and Count Joscelin II of Edessa reputedly sat around playing dice rather than help the emperor prosecute the siege of Shaizar.
John II directs the Siege of Shaizar while his allies sit inactive in their camp, French manuscript 1338
The emperor was furious and planned to take Antioch from Raymond by force. Preparations for the siege of the formidable Antiochene citadel, found to be so famously by the First Crusaders in 1097-1098,2 seemingly went so well that John decided to enjoy himself with a spot of wild boar hunting in Mount Taurus in Cilicia. It was there that John II Komnenos was to meet his unfortunate end.
In the midst of his hunt, John was confronted with a particularly large boar, which charged the emperor. Despite managing to plant his spear into the chest of the onrushing beast, his arm was twisted by the “violent resistance,”3 causing him to scrape his wrist across the points of a quiver of poisoned arrows.
It would be expected that the group would have had the antidote to whatever poison they were using in their hunting for just such an incident, although the sheer idea that they were using poison on their arrows does seem odd if they were planning to eat anything that they killed. Was this more a hunting trip for sport and trophies rather than wild boar bacon?
His companions were quick to help their emperor binding the wound together with a membrane supposedly commonly known as an ekdera, although not commonly enough for its meaning to have transmitted down to us.4 Such a wound was likely commonplace for a warrior emperor who was fond of hunting and it was probably not even a flesh wound and therefore was causing little or no pain. So, fatally, John ignored it.
Even as he dined after the hunt (were bacon sandwiches on the menu? Surely not if poisoned arrows were used in the killing), John refused to make a big deal of his wound, despite his doctors demanding to see it. However, the combination of the poison, the ekdera and general uncleanliness saw to it that the wound became infected, perhaps even leading to sepsis, striking the emperor with pain and swelling just as he was going to sleep. Now fully alert to his doctors’ concerns, John allowed them to carry out a lancing of the swollen area. This did nothing to abate the infection and may even have made things worse.5
Resigned to his fate, John “commanded that the nobles and whoever was otherwise highly regarded among the grandees and generals be present,”6 and before them he nominated his son Manuel as his successor and had him acclaimed emperor by the army. The succession secured, John lingered for what were an increasingly agonising and uncomfortable few days of increasing fever, lowering blood pressure and perhaps finally septic shock. He died on 8th April 1143.7
PHGCOM, 2007 Musee Saint-Denis
Unsurprisingly, such a peculiar reported cause of death raises the suspicion of an assassination rather than a poisoned prick on the wrist.
Perhaps some Latins serving in his army were unwilling to fight against the Antiochenes? Was there some issue over the succession, where John was planning to choose the younger of his surviving sons, the pro-western Manuel I, over the elder but irascible Isaac? Could Manuel, Isaac, their mother Irene or any of their supporters have committed regicide to further their cause? Was there even a contrived acronym prophecy at work, one that “foretold” that the initial letters of names of the Komneni emperors would spell out the Greek word αιμα, meaning blood, demanding that Manuel succeed his grandfather, Alexius I, and his father John II (Ioannes) and then go to great lengths including forcing his son-in-law to take the name Alexius before having a legitimate son of his own, Alexius II?
Irene of Athens, mosaic in Hagia Sophia
Manuel I Komnenos
Or perhaps the contemporary sources were correct and for all his military and diplomatic successes in solidifying and expanding the empire, John II Komnenos was bested by a pig, a little clumsy and should have listened to his doctors.8
John II Komnenos, early 12th century marble sculpture in marble
1 Birkenmeier (2002), 98-99
2 Asbridge (2004), 153-240
3 John Kinnamos I.24
4 Ward (1976), 236 n.28
5 John Kinnamos I.25
6 John Kinnamos I.26
7 John Kinnamos I.29
8 John Kinnamos I.26-28 recounts John’s selection of Manuel over Isaac; Browning (1961); Magdalino (1993), 41
John Kinnamos, Deeds of John and Manuel Comnenus (C.M. Brand translation, 1976)
Niketas Choniates (H. Magoulias translation, 1984)
Angold, M.The Byzantine Empire 1025–1204; A Political History, Longman. (1984)
Angold, M. Church and Society in Byzantium under the Comneni, 1081-1261. Cambridge (1995)
Asbridge, T. The First Crusade: A New History. London (2004)
Birkenmeier, J.W. The Development of the Komnenian Army: 1081–1180. Brill (2002)
Browning, R. ‘The Death of John II Comnenus,’ Byzantion 31 (1961) 228-235
Magdalino, P The Empire of Manuel I Komnenos 1143–1180. Cambridge (1993)