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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)
The Open University and the Classical Association in Northern Ireland were extremely proud to host their joint Greek Tragedy and Epic for Schools event in Queen’s University, Belfast.
After a welcome and introduction from Dr John Curran (QUB/CANI) and Dr Janice Holmes of the Open University, Dr Laura Swift (OU) entertained and educated with her talk ‘Sophocles, Heaney and the Manipulation of Myth.’
From how the “vested emotional interest” in Greek myth is perhaps best displayed today in ‘fan-fiction’ through the terrible opening night of Phrynichus’ The Capture of Miletus to Alfred Hitchcock’s film-making advice for adding suspense to an otherwise boring conversation by putting a ticking time-bomb under the table, Dr Swift presented the “familiar but flexible” nature of Greek myth.
Dr Swift highlighted how receptions of the title character in Sophocles’ play Antigone and her opponent Creon can change. Most appropriately given the surroundings, it was the adaptation of Seamus Heaney that drew much attention, in particular his depiction of Creon, the seeming “ideal politician” who slides into paranoid tyranny under the guise of patriotism – an ancient rendition of George W Bush and the Patriot Act: the corruption of power at work once more.
Dr William Allan (University College, Oxford) followed up with a look at the frequently unheroic Homeric Hero, ranging from Achilles the “touchy psychopath,” the honourable death-seeking Hector, the Cyclopean cheese-stealing Odysseus to the modern day Batman vs Superman.
Dr Allan demonstrated that the hero of Homeric tradition could not only fight well but could be expected to speak and think well, but with the proviso that Greek heroes were and indeed are only interesting when they failed to live up to these ideals. For every glorious victory in combat, tremendous feat of endurance or skill, eloquent speech or ingenious Trojan Horse plot, there was a less than heroic catastrophe – Achilles got his friends killed through his own haughty stubbornness; Hector doomed his own city through his need for a gory, honourable death; Odysseus, for all his smarts, got many of his men killed through his own stupidity and selfishness while Batman and Superman went to war over a misunderstanding that would have been simply fixed through a brief conversation.
We at CANI were thrilled by the numbers of schools represented in the audience, all keen to bolster their knowledge and understanding of tragedy and epic poetry by listening to and conversing with two such prominent classicists as our speakers. It demonstrates that interest in the Classics continues to be strong across Northern Ireland and beyond.
As Dr Curran said in his introduction to the event, this was kind of event encapsulated the two main raisons d’être of the Classical Association in Northern Ireland – promoting the Classics and providing help to schools, so for so many to show their interest by attending is a great boon to the aims of CANI.
CANI would also like to thank not just Dr Swift and Dr Allan for taking the time out of their busy schedules to travel to our shores to present their excellent, thought-provoking talks and to all the attendees for making the event such a success, but also Janice Holmes, Jennifer Shepherd and the Open University in Ireland who did so much to make this great event happen.
Dr Peter Crawford
For more photos and a couple of taster videos from this tremendous event over in our Greek Tragedy and Epic for Schools Gallery
Following the success of our own poetry evening last month, we are happy to point anyone interested in hearing more classically-inspired poetry from some of the best pens these isles have to offer in the direction of the upcoming Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry event this Thursday featuring Michael Longley and Peter McDonald
Thursday, 14 April, at 8pm in the Crescent Arts Centre
Michael Longley is a recipient of the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, and his translations and adaptations from classical literature have garnered international critical acclaim. His most recent poetry collection, The Stairwell (2014) won the Griffin Poetry Prize.
Peter McDonald’s Collected Poems appeared in 2012, and a new volume of translations from ancient Greek, Homeric Hymns, has just been published by Carcanet Press, together with his most recent poetry collection, Herne the Hunter (2016).
Tel: (028) 9024 2338
Exploring Greek Literature:
Epic and Tragedy
Saturday, 16 April, 2016
Stranmillis College, Belfast
11 am – 1 pm
Please join us for a morning of lectures dedicated to exploring Greek epic and tragedy, hosted by The Open University in Northern Ireland & the Republic of Ireland and the Classics Association in Northern Ireland (CANI).
The event will feature lectures by two dynamic Classics scholars with a knack for bringing the ancient world to life through their research engagement in Greek literature.
**PLEASE NOTE THAT THIS IS A SEPARATE EVENT TO THE Greek Tragedy and Epic For Schools EVENT IN THE PETER FROGGAT CENTRE IN QUEEN’S UNIVERSITY 1:15pm-3pm
EVERYONE IS WELCOME TO EITHER (OR BOTH!)**
Dr Laura Swift (OU) specialises in archaic and classical Greek poetry and drama. She has also blogged on a variety of popular classical themes, including ancient haircuts. Having served as the academic consultant on the National Theatre’s production of Antigone, she will be drawing from her experience of Greek theatre in academic and popular contexts in her session on Greek tragedy. For more information on Dr Swift, see her webpage at http://www.open.ac.uk/people/ls9939
Dr William Allan (Oxford) will be drawing on his extensive research in Greek literature for his lecture on the Greek epic. To find out more about his research interests and involvements, see his webpage at http://www.univ.ox.ac.uk/univ-people/dr-william-allan