Originally Posted by Basileus Giorgios
Following the eviction of the Emperor Henry IV from central Italy in the autumn of 1084, all hell had broken lose in Germany. Henry had spent a relatively comfortable winter in Milan, but, crossing the Alps the following spring, found his German homeland in disarray, with no fewer than four pretenders to the throne on the lose across his Reich. The young Emperor’s response to this was entirely characteristic- he met his rebellious barons head on in battle near Magdeburg. The result was a catastrophic defeat for the Emperor, who, if popular legend is to be believed, survived only by cowering in a woodcutter’s forest home for weeks. By the end of 1085 he had shut himself up in the collection of castles at Hamburg (i), and his pretensions to the throne of the Western Roman Empire seemed to be firmly at an end.
What happened next need not concern us directly. Suffice it to say that of Henry’s four rivals, one died in battle, and two of the others retracted their claims to the throne, instead backing a long term rival of Henry’s, Ekbert of Meissen (ii), who promptly sent out feelers to Rome. Ekbert’s endeavours met with success, and he was crowned Emperor of the West in May 1087 by the new Pope, Victor III (iii). Ekbert was quick, too, to come to terms with the court at Constantinople, and proposed a marriage alliance between his infant son Conrad and Alexios Komnenos’ youngest daughter Styliane, an alliance that was supported by Dalassēnē and her allies during their period of ascendency at court. Ekbert rapidly proved himself to be an enthusiast for all things Eastern, sending men and money to aid the Imperial armies operating in Sicily and Sardinia. More importantly for the West, he decided to attempt to emulate Constantinople’s greatest asset- her taxation system.
In doing so, however, Ekbert would spell his own doom. In the summer of 1088 he conducted a relatively limited census that came to be known in the Reich as “Die zudringliche Erkundigung”- literally, “the intrusive enquiry”. Unrest began to build, especially when the following year, “gifts” of money were requisitioned from a number of large landowners by Ekbert. The barons recognised the thin end of a taxation wedge when they saw one, and quickly burst into revolt against their Emperor. Now it was Ekbert’s turn to scuttle into a fortified stronghold. His replacement, naturally, was Henry. Swaggering down from Hamburg, he brutally enforced his victory over Ekbert, stripping his prostate rival of his lands and titles. Ekbert was sent on his way, a German chronicler records, “to die by the roadside like a flea-bitten hound” (iv).
Henry had been out of power for four bitter years, and his revenge, when it came, was brutal. The great lords of the Reich were summoned to Hamburg in Christmas of 1090, there to be variously humiliated, executed, or promoted at their new master’s will. Recognising a good idea where he saw one, Henry demanded annual tribute in gold from those aristocrats who had done well out of his rise to power, thus formally beginning systematic taxation of the German people. A couple of small revolts over the next couple of years were crushed with brutal efficiency by Henry and his allies. Germany was now secure- and it was time to look to Italy.
The previous summer, of course, things had looked rosy enough in the peninsula for Isaac Komnenos to withdraw the majority of his armies, and leave the domestic administration of Italy in the hands of his sons, Manuel and Stephen. Now, though, the skies were rapidly darkening. Henry’s armies crossed the Alps in the spring of 1093. Pope Victor’s squeals of alarm (v) were met with sympathy by Manuel Komnenos in Barion, but there was little he could do about the situation. What troops he had at hand were on campaign with his brother in Sardinia, and the majority of the armies of his father had recently been transferred to the East, there to form the vanguard of a campaign to be led by Alexios against the fast crumbling Saljūq Sultanate (vi). Victor was left uncomfortably exposed, and, with Henry’s army rapidly bearing down on him, he attempted flight. It was in vain. The Bishop of Rome was captured by a force of German knights and used for target practise by them, his mangled remains brought back to the Emperor, who had occupied the Lateran, and selected his own Pope, the loyalist Bishop of Ravenna who betrayed his notional masters in Constantinople and took the Papal throne as Clement III (vii). The alliance between West and East had been irrevocably sundered.
Stephen Komnenos returned swiftly to Barion, together with his small army, and the two brothers made a show of force when Henry’s ambassadors arrived. It was largely in vain, and the westerners were not particularly intimidated. Henry would agree to a cessation of hostilities between West and East, conditional upon the annual payment of some five hundred pounds of gold in annual tribute. With their uncle the Emperor fully occupied in the East and months away from communication, the two brothers had little choice but to accept the demands.
Thus satisfied, Henry moved north, to the loyalist city of Milan, from where he legislated in the manner of one of the great Roman Emperors of old. In 1094, we find him for the first time issuing demands for taxation from the cities of the Po Valley and the Papal States. This provoked another revolt, led by the disaffected and apparently difficult-to-please citizens of Ravenna, who had hoped that by switching their allegiance to Henry (viii), they had ridded themselves of greedy Imperial tax gatherers. The revolt was initially successful, thanks to tacit funding from the Venetians and the other Adriatic allies of Constantinople, but ultimately was defeated by Henry, who stormed Ravenna in 1097. The network of resistance to him across Italy promptly collapsed- apart from in one city.
Prior to the Italian expeditions of Alexios Komnenos, Genoa had been a small and relatively unimportant town in northern Italy. After his departure, and particularly once Italy came under the administration of his nephews, it began to rise rapidly to prominence. Stephen Komnenos had, in his campaign of 1093, made much use of the sea power of Genoa in order to augment his own forces in operation on the eastern coast of Sardinia (ix); and when he was forced to return to the Italian mainland to deal with the Germans, the Genoese had been generously paid to keep up the war. During the uneasy period of Imperial stalemate in Italy, the Genoese had grown further in prosperity, thanks to their close alliance with Barion. Quietly encouraged by Manuel and Stephen, they had thrown in their lot with the Ravenna-led alliance, and had inflicted a sharp defeat upon German forces attempting to besiege their city. That, though, had been thanks in large part to the timely arrival of reinforcements, and low German morale caused by events elsewhere (x). Now, Genoa stood entirely alone.
Henry began making preparations for the final removal of Genoese resistance the moment Ravenna had fallen to him. The Genoese were quite aware of this, and sent panicky messages to Barion, begging for the support of the Katepánō Manuel (xi). Manuel himself, a reasonably adept military man, though lacking the flair of his younger brother, was quick to realise that the forces at his disposal would not be enough to see off the Germans. In turn, therefore, he appealed to his uncle the Emperor for aid.
Alexios Komnenos had good reason to want to return to the Italian theatre. His war against the Turks, waged in four campaigns between 1094 and 1097 had been a costly and bloody endeavour, for very little reward (xii). His son Michael, now twenty years old, had impressed many with his dynamism and courage on the battlefield, but this was no substitute for the record of success won the sons of the Emperor’s brother Isaac. Isaac, now in virtual house-arrest in Constantinople, had been quick to broadcast this to the populace, and, when Alexios returned to the City in the late autumn of 1097, he had been greeted with very little enthusiasm. Rumours began to circulate of the appearance of an angelic prophet who had appeared to Isaac and promised he and his sons the throne. Alexios, once again, was in need of a victory.
The Genoese campaign would set the seal on his reign, though, infuriatingly, the detail of what actually happened is difficult to pin down. Ignatios of Phaselis seems to have died shortly before he set out- the last year recorded in his waspish chronicle is 1096/97, in which he gleefully recounts a tale of the Emperor’s men being defeated by a dozen Turks. The major historians of the twelfth century only give Alexios’ triumphant campaign a brief mention, for reasons we shall soon see. Despite all of this, one thing is clear. After the Genoese campaign, no one would again begin to doubt Alexios’ claim to the throne.
The Germans began the siege in the summer of 1098, withdrawing briefly over the winter, but returning with a vengeance the following spring. The Genoese, for their part, were hopelessly outnumbered, but were able to utilise their command of the high seas to bring in just about enough food and water to cling on. It was a desperate situation for the city, however. As 1099 wore on, hopes of survival began rapidly to wane.
It was at this point that the Emperor Alexios arrived at the head of a very large army, made up of disciplined troops of the Tagmata and Norman mercenaries. Most remarkably, from the point of view of the Germans (xiii), was the enlisting in his army of a large body of Arab horsemen, bullied from the Zirid Emir of Ifriqiya (xiv). The Germans retreated from the siege, but in good order, and their army was by no means defeated. Large as Alexios’ force was, Henry’s still probably outnumbered it, and his veterans, unlike those of Alexios, had experienced a decade of victory, not grinding stalemate.
The two armies met at Savona, to the west of Genoa, on the chilly day of January 12th 1100. The result was a crushing victory for Alexios’ army. Of the Germans, it is rumoured that only forty survived- a rhetorical illusion, no doubt, but one that points at a broader truth of extreme German casualties. The Emperor Henry IV was sent scrabbling out of Italy for the last time, renouncing forever his claim to the title of Emperor of the Romans (xv). Alexios had saved Genoa, and won an Italian victory far more conclusive than any of those of rival family members.
It was a stunning triumph, in every way but one. Towards the end of the battle, Michael Komnenos, that young man of glorious talent and skill, had been thrown from his horse. All his skill at surviving, his military boldness, his popularity with the urban mob, his intellectual vigour could no longer help him. At Savona, Alexios Komnenos secured his reign, at the price of his son’s life. Michael Komnenos, heir to the throne of the Roman Empire died on January 19th, 1100.
i. Hamburg is still a very minor settlement in 1085. All this will now start to change, though it's still a while off from the great capital of the Holy German Empire that it will become.
ii. Better known IOTL as Egbert II of Meissen, he was an opponent of Henry IV IOTL, and died fighting the Emperor in 1090.
iii. This is the OTL figure. As he was an important spiritual figure in contemporary Italy, I've decided to leave the Papal succession untouched until this point.
iv. Ekbert's death is so insignificant that no historian from the IE Universe even deigns to mention exactly when it was, though he is presumably dead by 1100.
v. Victor's living rather longer than IOTL here.
vi. The Seljuks face a major civil war in 1088-1090, which allows various Turkish warlords in the west to shake off their authority. Alexios' campaigns aim to take advantage of this.
vii. An OTL Antipope. This is the real POD for the Papal succession. From now on, there won't be any more OTL Bishops of Rome.
viii. Pope Clement III seems to have been acting very much with the interests of his home city in mind when he betrayed the Byzantines in favour of the Germans. Despite its OTL reputation as a centre of Byzantine civilisation, Ravenna and her people have not enjoyed their first experience of direct Byzantine control since the eighth century.
ix. The conquest of Sardinia is a very shaky and piecemeal project. Stephen Komnenos is a very able young general, but, with limited men and money, there's only so much he can do to bring the Sardinians to heel.
x. Specifically, news of a minor defeat at the hands of the Poles far to the north and a major outbreak of dysentery in the German army.
xi. Manuel officially is granted this title in 1096, replacing his father.
xii. Alexios' men manage to sack Damascus in 1095, but are routed retreating north back to Antioch. The following year, the Turks manage to penetrate behind Imperial lines and raid Cilicia, and the campaign of 1097 is a violent struggle to push them out of Imperial territory, expensive in lives and money.
xiii. So appalled were the Germans at the idea of Saracens fighting in the army of a Christian Emperor that several 12th century German historians talk about Alexios as being an Islamic ruler.
xiv. More or less the area of modern Tunisia. The Zirid Emir is pretty much a vassal of the Eastern Emperor by now.
xv. He may not have been "Emperor of the Romans", but he was most certainly still "Emperor". The Battle of Savona therefore marks the definitive beginning of the Holy German Empire.