Post-classical history


The Byzantine Empire is considered to have been a weak military state at the time of the Fourth Crusade, yet this should not be exaggerated. Following catastrophic defeat by the Saljuq Turks at the battle of Manzikert in 1071, it witnessed a remarkable military revival under the Comnenid Emperors (1081–1185). Nevertheless this period also saw an almost equally disastrous Byzantine defeat at the battle of Myriokephalon in 1176, again at the hands of the Saljuqs. Militarily this period remains something of a mystery, some historians regarding the Comnenid revival as superficial while others maintain that the Byzantine Empire became a powerful force and remained so until Emperor Manuel’s death in 1180. Thereafter all agree that there was a steep decline.

Organizationally, the Comnenid system was more flexible, less bureaucratic and less centralized than its predecessors. Nevertheless, being something of a ‘household government’, mirroring aspects of 12th-century Western European government, it also suffered significant weakness in administration, finances and loyalty. Furthermore, by the late 12th century the Byzantine Empire was seriously short of manpower; not just military but also agricultural and economic. Decentralization of authority meant that the emperor was in competition with various regional power centres for military muscle, while a largely unexplained lack of suitably skilled soldiers meant that foreigners, either mercenaries or allies, boosted the ranks. Many of these were Westerners, adherents of the Latin Catholic rather than of the Orthodox Church, which was not only the ‘state religion’ of Byzantium but also provided the empire with its reason to exist.


This 11th-century wall painting in the St Sophia Cathedral in Kiev shows the Byzantine Emperor in the kathisma (‘Imperial box’) of the Hippodrome. (Soviet Academy of Sciences)

In more immediate terms, the failure to regain those Anatolian provinces that had once provided the Byzantine army with many of its best troops caused further problems. Isaac II Angelos, whose first reign lasted from 1185 to 1195, was an occasionally energetic military leader but he lost the best parts of his army during unsuccessful campaigns in Bulgaria. His brother, Emperor Alexios III Angelos (1195–1203), apparently made little attempt to rebuild the Byzantine army. Furthermore he allowed the navy, which had been partially revived during the 12th century, to decline disastrously. Even so, the Byzantine army – if not the navy – still existed in 1203, and had fought Saljuq Turks, Vlachs, Bulgars and Kipchaq Turks, albeit with mixed fortunes. Having recently crushed a significant invasion by the Norman Kingdom of Sicily and southern Italy it should theoretically have been able to drive off the smaller Fourth Crusade.

Poor morale was seemingly the Byzantine Empire’s greatest problem, and there was already a widespread view in Europe and beyond that the Byzantine Greeks lacked military stamina. The famous Spanish Jewish traveller, Benjamin of Tudela, visited Constantinople only a few years before the Fourth Crusade, subsequently writing: ‘They hire from amongst all nations warriors called Loazim [Barbarians] to fight with the Sultan Mas’ud, King of the Tagarmim [Saljuqs], who are called Turks; for the natives are not warlike, but are as women who have no strength to fight.’3The dangers inherent in such a situation were recognized in a Byzantine book of advice written a little over a century earlier: ‘Do not raise foreigners to high offices nor entrust great responsibilities to them, unless they belong to the royal line of their lands, because by doing so you shall surely render yourself and your Roman officials ineffectual. For whenever you honour a foreigner coming from the herd [a derogatory term for low-class foreigners] as primicerius or general, what can you give to a Roman as a worthy position of command?… If you do honour some foreigner beyond [the rank of] spatharocandidatos, from that moment on he becomes a man who will despise you and not serve you properly.’4


The citadel of Trikala in Thessaly is an example of the simple Byzantine fortifications that dotted medieval Greece at the time of the Fourth Crusade. (Author’s photograph)


Fragments of 12th- and early 13th-century Byzantine sgraffito-ware ceramics, including serious (G) and satirical (D) subjects: A and B are from Corinth (Archaeological Museum, Corinth); C is from Iznik (Archaeological Museum, Iznik); D is from Verroia (National Archaeological Museum, Athens); E is from the Agora, Athens (Agora Museum, Athens); F is from an unknown location (Louvre Museum, Paris); G is from the Cherson region of Crimea (Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg); H is from Corinth (Archaeological Museum, Corinth).

The concept of ‘holy war’ was essentially foreign to Byzantine, Orthodox Christian values, though wars could be justified on religious grounds because the emperor and the empire itself were ‘holy’ defenders of Christianity. Furthermore, the killing of religious rivals was not an intrinsically good action, as it still was to the Crusaders, but was seen as a necessary evil. On the other hand there is strong evidence that, in contrast to this ‘official Orthodox Christian ideology’, there still existed survivals of ‘heroic paganism’ within the Byzantine military elites, much of it rooted in pre-Christian, Graeco-Latin warrior mythology. Hence the Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon warrior attitudes brought to the Byzantine army by the Varangian Guard were not entirely alien.

Another point of contention amongst historians is the importance or otherwise of the pronoia (fief) system around this period. This method of donating land as a means of rewarding and maintaining military personal was unlike Western European feudalism because the fiefs in question were not normally passed from father to son. Its significance was also limited because the amount of land the Byzantine emperor had available for donation as pronoiai was decreasing; this was because the empire was generally shrinking and because so much land had been donated to the Church. Declining numbers of paroikoi ‘peasants’ to work the land also reduced its value as a means of raising revenue for the state or for pronoia holders.

On a more positive note, the Byzantine army was still renowned for strict discipline amongst officers and men, regular and relatively generous pay and an efficient system of distributing arms, armour and horses at the start of a campaign. The command structure remained theoretically traditional, though recent emperors had been warrior leaders rather than the traditional ‘philanthropic bringers of peace’. Unfortunately this also meant that the quality of leadership and command was increasingly dependent upon the personality of the Emperor. Another weakness lay in the fact that 12th- and very early 13th-century emperors were heads of aristocratic clans in which family ties were paramount, and which were often at loggerheads with other clans or families that might have a valid claim to the imperial throne. Worse still, Emperor Isaac II Angelos seems to have given positions of senior military command for political reasons rather than based on the competence of the candidate.


A mid-13th-century carving around the western door of the Cathedral of St Lawrence in Trogir shows soldiers in Byzantine- or Balkan-style armour. (Author’s photograph)

Structurally, the Byzantine army still consisted of indigenous units recruited on regional and often linguistic grounds, plus similarly ‘ethnic’ units of foreign mercenaries and elite palace or guard regiments. The cavalry were divided into heavily armoured close-combat troopers in a traditional Middle Eastern rather than Western European style, and lightly equipped horse archers, the majority of whom now seem to have been pagan Turks from the steppes or Muslim Turks from Anatolia.

The most famous elite palace regiment was, of course, the Varangian Guard. Originally recruited from Scandinavians and Rus of largely Scandinavian origin, the Varangian Guard now largely consisted of Englishmen of Anglo-Saxon rather than Anglo-Norman origin, plus Frisians, Germans and others. Their duties were remarkably similar to those of the Kievan Russian Druzhina, the Scandinavian vikinge-lag and the pre-1066 Anglo-Saxon huscarls. Each of these was a mercenary company that served as a ruler’s personal bodyguard and the core of a larger army.

In other respects Byzantine military recruitment remained traditional. Emperor Manuel had, for example, settled large numbers of prisoners of war as paroikoi peasants with military obligations. Emperor Isaac II then continued his Comnenid predecessors’ policy of trying to rebuild a ‘national’ but not necessarily aristocratic army. Then there were the Armenians. Mistrust between Greeks and Armenians within the Byzantine Empire had been a source of weakness for centuries, but although the Armenians were often politically unreliable, they were regarded as good soldiers. Despite their importance declining during the 12th century, significant numbers of militarily active Armenians were still present in the early 13th century, in both Anatolia and Thrace. Presumably this reflected a traditional Byzantine habit of settling Armenian military colonies close to vulnerable frontiers; those based in the Troad (Troy) region of north-western Anatolia were well-placed to face a continuing Saljuq threat.

Given the parlous state of the Byzantine economy at the start of the 13th century, it is hardly surprising that the number of Western European mercenaries had shrunk. There were still some, perhaps including survivors of those ‘Franks’ who had defended Varna against Bulgar and Vlach rebels in 1193. However, most of those Westerners who would fight alongside Byzantine troops in defence of Constantinople against the Fourth Crusade seem to have been resident merchants and perhaps ships’ crews. The most significant group were the Pisans, who felt a vested interest in supporting the current emperor against what probably looked to them like an invasion by their Venetian commercial rivals.

By the time of the Fourth Crusade, Turkish mercenaries were almost certainly more numerous and more important. They included substantial numbers from the semi-nomadic Turkish peoples of the western steppes, most notably Kipchaqs, who came from the same areas as those Kipchaqs who, with the Vlachs, had instigated the anti-Byzantine revolt that resulted in the recreation of a Bulgarian kingdom.

Other Turkish mercenaries came from Anatolia, including the Saljuq Sultanate of Rum, though the numbers of such troops are believed to have declined after the Byzantine disaster at Myriokephalon in 1176. Perhaps the Byzantine army could no longer afford them. A smaller number arrived as aristocratic political refugees, perhaps with their own military followings. The most important Turkish refugee at the time of the Fourth Crusade was Ghiyath al-Din Kaykhusraw I, youngest son of Sultan Kilij Arslan II by a Christian wife. In 1194–05 he had briefly ruled the Saljuq Sultanate and carried out successful raids against Byzantine territory, but he was then overthrown by one of his half-brothers, Rukn al-Din Sulayman. After wandering around the Middle East, Ghiyath al-Din sought refuge in Constantinople. This was granted by Alexios III, although the Emperor refused to help the refugee Saljuq prince regain his throne. Ghiyath al-Din was still living in Constantinople when the Fourth Crusade arrived.

3 Adler, M. N. (tr.), The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela (Malibu, 1987) p. 71.

4 Kekaumenos (tr. W. North), ‘Logos Nouthetikos, or Oration of Admonition to an Emperor’ (De Re Militari website) p. 4.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!