Isaac Comnenus of Cyprus

From Academic Kids

Isaac Comnenus was the last ruler of Cyprus before the Frankish conquest during the Third Crusade. He was a minor member of the Comnenus family, a great nephew of the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Comnenus (1143–1180) and a grandson of the Sebastocrator Isaac. He should not be confused with the Byzantine emperor Isaac I Comnenus (ruled 1057–1059). The following account of his life is mainly based on the Byzantine historian Niketas Choniates.

Emperor Manuel made Isaac governor of Isauria and the town of Tarsus in present-day eastern Turkey, where he started a war with the Armenians and was imprisoned by them. As Emperor Manuel had died in the meantime (1180), nobody seems to have greatly cared about Isaac's fate, and he remained a prisoner for a long time, which seems to have done nothing for his disposition in general. As he was married to an Armenian princess when on Cyprus, his terms of imprisonment may not have been too harsh.

Finally his aunt Theodora Comnena, who had an affair with the new Emperor Andronicus I Comnenus (1123–1185) convinced the Emperor to contribute to his ransom, as did his stepfather Constantine Macroducas and Andronicus Ducas, another relative and a childhood friend, a sodomite and debaucher, als Niketas tells us. Strangely enough, the Templars (the Phreri, as Nicetas Choniates calls them) contributed as well.

When Isaac was released in 1185, he was obviously fed up with Imperial service. He used the rest of the money to hire a troop of mercenaries and sailed to Cyprus. He presented Imperial letters that ordered the local administration to obey him in everything and ruled like a governor, the letters and seals having been faked by himself.

Constantine Macroducas and Andronicus Ducas had had to stand surety for Isaac's fealty to the Emperor. When he failed to return, Andronicus had them arrested for treason, although Constantine had been his loyal supporter so far. Andronicus was afraid that Isaac would try to usurp the throne, as a water-oracle conducted by the courtier Stephanus Hagiochristophorites had given I (iota) as the initial of the next Emperor. When the prisoners were led out of prison to face the charges, Stephanus Hagiochristophorites started to stone them and forced the others to join him. Both prisoners were then impaled at the front of the Mangana palace. Another oracle gave the date when the next Emperor would start to rule, and Andronicus was greatly relieved, as the time was much too short for Isaac to make the crossing from Cyprus.

Meanwhile Isaac had taken many other Romans into his service. He created an independent patriarch of Cyprus, who crowned him as emperor. According to Nicetas, he soon started to plunder Cyprus, raping women and defiling virgins, imposing overly cruel punishments for crimes and stealing the possessions of the citizens. "Cypriots of high esteem, comparable to Job in riches now were seen begging in the streets, naked and hungry, if they were not put to the sword by this irascible tyrant." Furthermore, he had the foot of his old teacher Basileios Pentakenos hacked off, which Nicetas finds even more despicable.

In 1185 Isaac II Angelus became Emperor after a popular uprising. He raised a fleet of 70 ships to take back Cyprus. The fleet was under the command of Joannes Kontostephanos and Alexius Comnenus, a nephew once removed of the Emperor. Neither seems to have been very fit, Joannes was quite old, and Alexios had been blinded by order of Andronicus. They landed in Cyprus, but Megareites, a pirate in the service of William II of Sicily (1166–1189) captured the ships after the troops had left them. Isaac, or more likely Megareites, won a victory over the troops and captured the trierarchs, whom he took off to Sicily, while the rest of the sailors remained on Cyprus, to fend for themselves as best they could. "Only much later did they return home, if they had not perished altogether."

Missing image
Zafer Burnu, or Cape Andreas, where Isaac is said to have been taken prisoner by the Crusaders

In 1192, the "King of the Inglines" Richard I Plantagenet conquered the Island while on his way to Tyre. Isaac was taken prisoner near Cape St. Andreas on the Karpaz, the northernmost tip of the island. According to tradition, Richard had promised Isaac not to put him into irons, so he was kept prisoner in chains of silver. Isaac was given over to the Knights of St. John, who kept him imprisoned in Margat near Tripoli till his death in 1194 or 1195.

Isaac is described as an irascible and violent man, "boiling with anger like a kettle on the fire", but Nicetas clearly is not very partial to him. The cruelties attributed to him pale somewhat in comparison with Emperor Andronicus. He seems to have been in league with William of Sicily, who was a powerful thorn in the side of the Empire, which helped him to hold the island as long as he did, and had close connections to sultan Saladin as well.

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