John Axouchos, From Kidnapped Child to Roman Commander


Early life

John Axouchos was born circa 1087. He is a Turk by birth (though referred to anachronistically as a “Persian” by John Kinnamos). Because of his origin, it is possible that Axouchos was a Muslim before his capture. In 1097, the little John Axouchos was captured by the Romans during the Siege of Nicaea (modern-day İznik, Turkey). He was given to the Roman emperor Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081-1118) as a present. The poor child had no choice except to accept his fate.

Axouchos grew up in the Roman imperial household. He befriended John II Komnenos (r. 1087-1143), the heir of Alexios I Komnenos since he was a child. When John II Komnenos became emperor, he appointed his friend Axouchos as megas domestikos (a Roman title for the commander-in-chief of the army) and sebastos (another honorary title for people who are close to the emperor). He was a respected figure among the Roman nobles. All members of the imperial family were required to show respect for him.

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Axouchos during the reign of John II Komnenos

After John II Komnenos foiled a plot against his throne and life by his sister, Anna Komnene, John offered Axouchos Anna’s confiscated property. But Axouchos respectfully declined because he thought that this thing would have soured his relationship with the Komnenian family. Instead, Axouchos asked for clemency for Anna. The two siblings (John II Komnenos and Anna Komnene) were reconciled, at least to a degree.

John II Komnenos was an active soldier. He campaigned in the Balkans, Anatolia, and the Levant. Therefore, Axouchos often collaborated with the emperor. In 1119, Axouchos laid siege to Laodicea. He won a victory over the Seljuk Turks under the command of Alp-qara. This victory opened the way for the Roman reconquest of Attaleia (modern Antalya, Turkey) and Cilicia (a region in Southern Anatolia).

While fighting the Pechenegs (a Turkic people who lived around the Balkans and Northern Caucasus) in 1122, Axouchos was wounded in his leg in the Battle of Beroia. Axouchos also played an active part in the Roman campaigns of 1137-1138 in Cilicia, Antioch, and Northern Syria. He fought against the Armenians and the Zengids in those campaigns. During these campaigns, he got wounded once again.

Kingmaker

While preparing an attack against the crusader-controlled Antioch, John II Komnenos died after a hunting accident in Cilicia. He played an important role in securing the succession of Manuel I Komnenos, against possible opposition from his elder brother and uncle, both named Isaac. He left Manuel and his army in Cilicia, traveling as fast as he could to Constantinople before the news of John’s death arrived there. As soon as he arrived in Constantinople, he secured the imperial treasuries and regalia. And the two persons named Isaac we mentioned earlier, Axouchos had them confined in the Pantokrator Monastery. And because of this, the reign of Emperor Manuel I Komnenos suffered no active opposition. Axouchos was faithful to the wishes of John II, although, before John’s death, Axouchos tried to persuade John to choose his elder son Isaac as his successor, thinking that Isaac was the better candidate to succeed.

Reign of Manuel I Komnenos

At the emperor’s table during a campaign in 1145-1146, a heated debate occurred with comparisons being made about the martial ability of John II Komnenos and his son, Manuel. Axouchos offensively exalted John II and Manuel was offended. Axouchos’ statement was vociferously supported by Isaac, the brother of Manuel (and his rival too). The debate soon turned into a fight when Isaac attacked his cousin, Andronikos. However, the blow was deflected by the help of another kinsman. Isaac was punished by being banished from Manuel’s presence for a few days and Axouchos was also punished by being deprived of the privilege of using the imperial seal.

It is suggested that Axouchos’ possession of the imperial seal before 1145-1146 could mean that in addition to his military duties, he was also the head of the civil administration of the empire. This position was known as mesazon, a position equivalent to a vizier or even prime minister.

Axouchos also participated in an 1148-1149 expedition against the Norman Kingdom of Sicily in Corfu as the commander of the land forces. While the megas doux Stephanos Kontostephanos acted as the commander of the naval forces. But after the death of Stephanos in 1149, Axouchos assumed command of the entire expedition. During the expedition, a riot broke between the Romans and the Venetians, Axouchos tried to mediate. But eventually, Axouchos was forced to send his bodyguards to quell the riot by force. Axouchos’ forces starved the Normans into surrender in 1149. The Normans surrendered their fortifications and withdrew from the island.

Interest in Christian theology

For someone who was raised in the Roman imperial household, Axouchos appeared to have been highly educated. He had an interest in Christian theology. He asked questions to a theologian named Nicholas of Methone concerning the nature of ‘indwelling of the Holy Spirit within the apostles’. Emperor Manuel I Komnenos personally pressed Nicholas to give reasonable answers to Axouchos’ questions for some reason.

Death

John Axouchos is believed to have died in 1150 or at the latest, 1151.

Check out our article about the Pingnan Guo, a Muslim state in China. For a deeper look into the Turkish influence on the Eastern Roman Empire check out this source.

About the writer:

Rexory is just a humble middle schooler Islamic and Roman history nerd. He likes to roleplay, makes memes, plays soccer, and debates stuff.


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