Post-classical history

Varieties of Byzantium

The Fulcrum of the Crusades

Consider, therefore, that the Almighty has provided you, perhaps for this purpose, that through you He may restore Jerusalem from such debasement… With God’s assistance we think this can be done through you.

Guibert of Nogent reporting Pope Urban II’s preaching of the First Crusade at Clermont in 1095

In 1087, the balance of power in the Middle East shifted decisively when the Seljuk Turks captured Jerusalem. Following their victory at Mantzikert (1071), the Turks had been moving steadily south towards their goal, Muslim Egypt. Their capture of Jerusalem cut pilgrim routes to the Holy Land and prompted Christians throughout the known world to action. Inspired by Pope Urban II’s gruesome accounts of ‘the base and bastard Turks… an accursed race’ and the ‘pollution of paganism’, knights, soldiers and even poor pilgrims ‘took the cross’ (painted the sign of the cross on their clothes) in the West and set out in the spring of 1096 on their own campaign to win back the Holy Land. The ensuing crusades against the infidels in the Near East brought West and East into much closer and often hostile contact during the twelfth century, with Byzantium at the centre.

After a decade of civil war between 1071 and 1081, Alexios I Komnenos (1081–1118) found Byzantine fighting forces in disarray and realized the impossibility of campaigning both in the East against the Turks and in the West against the Normans. He was forced to concentrate on driving the Normans out of Epiros (1081–5), while one group of Seljuk Turks established themselves at Nicaea in western Asia Minor. In 1088, Alexios requested and obtained the use of a company of five hundred knights attached to the Count of Flanders, which provided excellent mercenary service. So in 1095, when he sent an appeal for western help to Pope Urban II, he anticipated the arrival of additional military forces of the same kind to assist in his battles against the Turks in Asia Minor. He may have thought that his needs could be made to coincide with the aims of the Latin Christians. Together they would drive the Turks out of Asia Minor and go on to reconquer Jerusalem.

Despite the Arab conquest of Jerusalem, for centuries Christians continued to make pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Once the Hungarians had been converted to Christianity, the overland route to Jerusalem via the Balkans and Constantinople was reopened, and western travellers became more familiar with the wealth of Byzantium and its amazing collection of relics. Their visits also made the Byzantines aware of the military strengths of Latin knights. While the emperor may not have appreciated the vitality of the papacy, reformed by Gregory VII (1073–85), and the growing influence of the Benedictine monastic order in the West, he had cultivated good relations with individual bishops of Rome and wished to promote Christian unity. Similarly, even if Pope Urban II saw the crusade as an opportunity to bring the Church of Constantinople under Rome’s control, in all the accounts of his speech at Clermont an appeal was made to the western knights, ‘who are accustomed to wage private wars even against Believers’, to redirect their strength against the Infidel. Fulcher of Chartres reports that he urged them ‘to help your brothers living in the Orient, who need your aid for which they have already cried out many times’, which clearly reflects the idea of a common Christian front against the resurgence of Islam. Robert of Rheims adds that Urban II encouraged them in a material fashion as well:

Enter upon the road to the Holy Sepulchre; wrest that land from the wicked race, and subject it to yourselves. That land which as the Scripture says ‘floweth with milk and honey’, was given by God into the possession of the Children of Israel.

But as the pope preached the need for Christians to take the cross, and offered a pardon (indulgence) for their sins if they did so, large numbers of pilgrims, often poor and unarmed, including women and children, decided to set off for the East, led by charismatic preachers like Peter the Hermit, Walter the Penniless and Gottschalk, a priest from the Rhineland. Most followed a route from northern France and Germany across central Europe to Constantinople, inspired by Urban II’s instructions to ‘rush as quickly as you can to the defence of the Eastern Church’. Their presence fundamentally altered the idea of a combined Christian military campaign against the forces of Islam.

Some western knights had already fought the Muslims in Spain, and many pilgrims were familiar with the routes to the relics of St James at Santiago de Compostela. But the massed pilgrimage to Jerusalem of 1096 brought together for the first time thousands of largely unarmed civilians. The idea of participating in a holy war against the infidel may have increased their consciousness of the ‘other’ in medieval society, which was then turned against the Jews. According to an account attributed to Solomon ben Simpson of Speyer, which forms part of a longer twelfth-century Jewish chronicle, the Christian pilgrims said to each other:

Behold we journey a long way… to take vengeance upon the Muslims. But here are the Jews living amongst us, whose ancestors killed him [Christ] and sacrificed him groundlessly. Let us take vengeance first upon them.

As well as seeking out and killing as many Jews as they could find in Cologne, Mainz, Speyer and Worms, those who had taken the cross also destroyed synagogues and burned the Torah. Similar violence occurred in Hungary, where pilgrims quarrelled with local Christians. Albert of Aachen, who wrote his history fifty years after the crusade, records that they behaved badly towards the Hungarians: ‘Like a rough people, rude in manners, undisciplined and haughty, they committed very many other crimes.’ Such disorders in the passage of the pilgrims created difficulties for those who followed. They also established a negative pattern in western attitudes to the unfamiliar inhabitants of eastern Europe, including the Byzantines.

Although Anna Komnene may exaggerate when she claims that 100,000 knights and 80,000 foot soldiers participated in the great pilgrimage, modern historians reckon upwards of 30,000 knights and many more pilgrims descended on the Byzantine capital. The movement therefore took on a very different form from that requested by the Byzantine emperor of a compact body of disciplined soldiers. Although it is now known as the First Crusade, at the time its participants identified themselves as pilgrims, travelling to Jerusalem in the company of armed and mounted contingents, who would fight to regain the Holy Places. Those led by Peter the Hermit arrived at Constantinople first, intent on completing the pilgrimage on foot but seriously in need of rest before they undertook the most dangerous part of the route across Asia Minor. Markets were set up so that they could purchase food and they were ferried across the Bosphoros. When the fighting forces eventually arrived, the emperor insisted that the leaders should swear an oath to return to his rule any previously Byzantine territory they conquered from the Seljuks, which some were loath to perform. Despite many difficulties in their cooperation, the combined Christian forces followed the pilgrims into Asia Minor and succeeded in recapturing Nicaea (June 1097). The city was returned to Byzantine control and the crusading forces then set out across the Anatolian plateau in the extreme heat of summer.

Numerous accounts of the progress of the First Crusade, by western, Byzantine and Arab authors reflect dissensions between the crusaders and Alexios I, among the crusaders and within the different Muslim authorities. These came to a head outside the walls of Antioch, which was strongly defended by local Muslims. After a siege of seven months, the crusaders finally broke in and occupied the city (June 1098). But they were immediately confronted by a powerful Turkish army, raised by emirs and smaller tribes, which came to the city’s relief. Some westerners who fled the city dissuaded Alexios I from sending Byzantine forces to assist the crusaders, claiming that Antioch was bound to fall to the Turks. His decision was later denounced as treachery. The final Christian victory, attributed in part to the miraculous discovery of the Holy Lance (a relic of the Passion of Christ), established Bohemond, son of the Norman ruler Robert Guiscard, as ruler of Antioch, in clear opposition to his oath to the Byzantine emperor.

The chequered history of Antioch during the crusades illustrates the contradictory aims of the participants. In Byzantine eyes, although the city had passed under Arab control in 636/7, it remained the target of Byzantine campaigns and had been regained in 969. But just over a century later, the Seljuks occupied it on their march south to Jerusalem. This symbolic loss was to be rectified by a Christian holy war, which would return Antioch to Byzantine rule. But to Bohemond and many of the leading knights on the campaign, who were actively seeking to found their own principalities in the East, the capture of Antioch was the first occasion to combine pilgrimage with territorial occupation. The Normans had already demonstrated their ambitions in this regard with Guiscard’s occupation of the Byzantine provinces of southern Italy and the conquest of England by Duke William in 1066. Bohemond himself only managed to avoid Byzantine reprisals against his claim to Antioch by declaring himself dead and leaving the region in a smelly coffin, as Anna Komnene recounted.

By 1098, when the crusaders set out from Antioch to capture Jerusalem, they learned that the city had been retaken by the Fatimids. Since the Seljuk and other Turkish tribes had adopted the Sunni definition of Islam, and thus opposed the Shi’ite dynasty ruling in Egypt, Muslim forces in the Near East were divided. Thanks in part to this disunity, the First Crusade proved amazingly successful. After a six-week siege of Jerusalem (June–July 1099), the Latins overcame the defenders and slaughtered the entire population. The western knights then elected Godfrey of Bouillon, one of their leaders, as king and thus established a Christian enclave in the Holy Land. The triumph provoked a deep sense of loss among Muslims and Jews, to whom Jerusalem was a particularly holy city. Their exclusion from the city that had been under Islamic rule since 638 was particularly resented.

Jerusalem remained the central focus of rival claims throughout the twelfth century. As Muslim forces renewed their efforts to regain the city, the Latin kingdom required additional support from western knights. The Second Crusade failed to capture Damascus, and never reached Jerusalem, but additional forces got through by sea. Despite considerable success in establishing an efficient colony, with an exuberant artistic production patronized by Queen Melisende, who ruled Jerusalem from 1131 to 1153, the Christian enclave was constantly threatened. Crusader castles such as Krak des Chevaliers were constructed to guard the kingdom, while the church of the Holy Sepulchre, dedicated in 1149, symbolized the mixture of early Christian, Arab, Romanesque and Byzantine elements in crusader architecture. Eventually, in 1187 Saladin, a Kurdish general who had made himself Sultan of Egypt, recaptured the holy city for Islam, and his merciful treatment of its non-Muslim population was widely praised. Nonetheless, the shift back to Islamic control triggered a reaction in the West, where Church leaders again called for further crusades. The Third, from 1189 to 1192, and Fourth, from 1202 to 1204, were the result.

In all these meetings of East and West, language was a basic problem: few Greeks knew Latin, and even fewer westerners knew Greek. During the twelfth century, Emperor Manuel I (1143–80) increased the number of westerners employed at the imperial court, where they served as translators and ambassadors. Growing western influence in Byzantium was also clear from the emperor’s delight in the sport of jousting, wearing trousers and selecting western princesses to marry into the imperial family. While this policy was sometimes denounced, there was a grudging appreciation of the Latins’ fighting capacity and bravery. Whether mounted or on foot, these ‘Franks’ – as all westerners were called – were admired for their strength. Anna Komnene concedes that Bohemond, her father’s Norman enemy, was a tall handsome man, and Niketas Choniates, the late twelfth-century historian appreciated Conrad of Montferrat, ally and son-in-law of Manuel I. Choniates even makes an unflattering comparison between the effeminate, cowardly Byzantines and their broad-shouldered, brave and daring Latin counterparts.

In addition to linguistic difficulties, Italian merchants generated a certain amount of tension within the empire. As we have seen (chapter 19), in Constantinople the Venetians controlled an entire quarter with its own church and warehouses along the Golden Horn, while Genoese and Pisan traders also maintained a presence in ports along the Adriatic, Mediterranean and Aegean coastlands. Despite the importance of international trade for Byzantium, political relations were not always good and local merchants resented the Italians’ advantageous trading terms. Tensions became inflamed in 1171 and again in 1182, when Manuel I and his successor Andronikos I (1182–5) ordered attacks on Venetian merchants, their property and ships. The losses sustained were so great that the republic made a claim for compensation: this long list of houses, ships and goods destroyed was still not settled in 1203, which probably exacerbated antagonism.

Linguistic, social and economic grounds for mutual hostility between Christians were augmented by liturgical differences. The filioque clause, ‘and from the Son’ (see chapter 4), recited in the Latin creed might have passed unnoticed by local Greeks until 1054, but thereafter it became a major divider, while differences over leavened or unleavened bread, the number of genuflections and the days and degrees of fasting were obvious and visible to all. The Byzantines were shocked that western bishops and clergy fought on horseback like knights, and the Latins thought it improper for orthodox priests and lower clergy to marry. For the Patriarch of Constantinople and his staff, the claim of papal primacy was particularly threatening as it gave Rome, the see founded by St Peter, superior power over all the churches.

Another serious misunderstanding arose from the Byzantine policy of maintaining diplomatic relations with the Muslim caliphs, other Arab leaders and Turkish emirs. The western knights did not appreciate the long tradition of exchanging embassies with the enemies of the empire, which had established a web of diplomatic contacts and intelligence. On this basis, the Byzantines were often able to avoid war, to exchange prisoners and maintain peace. This was condemned in the West as treachery. The charge resurfaced in a more pointed fashion during the 1180s, when Andronikos I was reported as being in league with Saladin and the Turks. Magnus of Reichersberg, a German monk, simply denounced the Greeks as treacherous and hostile to western forces. The accusation contains a degree of propaganda and may be a forgery. But clearly the Latins were surprised that Byzantine emperors traditionally engaged in diplomatic contacts with Muslim leaders of the Near East and did not appreciate their behaviour.

These ambiguous feelings also generated suspicions and fears which accumulated as Byzantine requests for western military help against the Turks continued through the twelfth century. During the Second Crusade, in 1147, King Louis VII of France and the German Emperor Conrad came to the capital, where Emperor Manuel laid on extravagant entertainments and made sure the rulers visited the most important monuments and relics of Constantinople. Echoes of this royal visit appear in Icelandic sagas and the epic of Charlemagne’s pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Western knights were astonished at the wealth of the empire, particularly the churches and markets of the great metropolis of Constantinople, while the Byzantines feared that the crusaders might become covetous. In Frederick Barbarossa they recognized a brilliant and ambitious leader who might well turn his forces against the Queen City.

Meanwhile, the Turks consolidated their hold on the central plateau of Asia Minor. In 1176 Manuel confronted Sultan Kilij Arslan near Myriokephalon and was soundly defeated. This confirmed a permanent Turkish presence in the Sultanate of Rum, which forced bishops to flee and pressured Christians to convert to Islam.

In the last two decades of the twelfth century, both western and Byzantine forces had reason to be wary of each other. During the Third Crusade, Emperor Isaac II Angelos (1185–95) was fiercely criticized for negotiating a truce with the Mamluks of Egypt while the crusaders restored Christian control in Acre. It was in order to secure Jerusalem that Pope Innocent III preached the Fourth Crusade in 1198. One year later Alexios III Angelos (1195–1203), who replaced his brother Isaac II as emperor in Constantinople and blinded him, sent an embassy to Rome requesting support for an attack on the Turks. The pope responded that Alexios would have to contribute to the crusade and that the Eastern Church would have to return to the authority of Rome. This threat to the independence of the Church of Constantinople coloured all later negotiations between the crusaders and Byzantium.

Knights from northern Europe, led by Geoffrey Villehardouin, adopted a novel strategy for the Fourth Crusade: it would attack the Muslims from Egypt. So they requested the help of Venice in transporting their forces across the Mediterranean to Alexandria, and this was agreed at considerable expense. But too few crusaders arrived at Venice to pay for the transport in specially designed ships. The Venetians then proposed to make a slight detour from the planned route to attack Zara, a Christian city on the Dalmatian coast. In order to set sail, the crusaders had to agree, and with the plunder they accumulated at Zara they were able to finance the crusade. But at Zara they also learned about Prince Alexios, son of Isaac II, who had escaped from prison in Byzantium and came to meet the leaders of the crusade. The young pretender, plotting against his uncle Alexios III, offered 200,000 silver marks in support if they would restore him to the imperial throne. He also accepted that the Church of Constantinople should become subject to the pope. After much discussion, it was agreed that the fleet should make another detour, to Constantinople, to install Alexios as rightful emperor, collect the sums promised and then proceed to Alexandria. Many knights, however, left the expedition at this point, disillusioned by the delays in getting to the eastern Mediterranean.

In the spring of 1203, the fleet duly set sail from Zara, anchored outside the walls of Constantinople, and within a few weeks installed Alexios IV Angelos on the throne. But then he had to fulfil the terms agreed at Zara, which proved much harder. After nearly a year when Alexios failed to pay the crusaders, a delegation went to warn him:

Our lords have frequently called on you… to carry out the contract made between yourselves and them. If you do this, they will be extremely pleased; but if not, they will no longer regard you as their lord and their friend, but will use every means in their power to obtain their due.

Geoffrey Villehardouin continued: ‘The Greeks were much amazed and deeply shocked by this openly defiant message… The noise of angry voices filled the hall.’ In his history of the crusade, written later, he reported that he was extremely glad to get out of the Blachernai Palace alive. Once the challenge had been made, hostile action became more likely, and when no payment was forthcoming it became inevitable. In April 1204, the crusaders attacked Constantinople with their most sophisticated siege weapons, which had been destined for Muslim-held Jerusalem. After four days, they forced an entry over the sea walls and subjected the Byzantine capital to a five-day sack. They then elected Count Baldwin of Flanders as emperor and the Venetian, Thomas Morosini, as patriarch, setting up a Latin Empire. The Byzantines were forced into exile.

In this development, the Doge of Venice, Enrico Dandolo, played a decisive role. He had lived in Constantinople in the 1180s and lost an eye in an attack on Venetian property. Now he suggested that the besiegers agree a division of the estimated spoils of war, a Venetian technique which had also been used at Zara. The Partitio terrarum Imperii Romaniae was drawn up in 1204 to justify and consolidate anticipated gains, not only of the city’s wealth but also of the territory of Romania, a western name for the empire. When the city’s impressive fortifications looked secure, it was Dandalo’s expert knowledge of the Golden Horn that proved critical to the success of the final attack. Venice was also the power that gained most from it, in that the conquest of Constantinople gave it rights of occupation over all the trading ports it used. The Venetian commercial empire, established as a result of the Fourth Crusade, was far more successful and permanent than the Latin Empire of Constantinople, which lasted less than sixty years.

For Byzantium, however, the experience of the sack of April 1204 left indelible wounds. Both Greek and Latin authors preserve vivid eyewitness accounts: Geoffrey Villehardouin, Robert de Clari, Gunter of Pairis (a monastery in Germany) on the western side, and Niketas Choniates, the greatest Byzantine medieval historian, on the eastern. Both sides agree about the extensive looting and devastation, which was increased by fires. Gunter writes:

so great a wealth of gold and silver, so great a magnificence of gems and clothing, so great a profusion of valuable trade goods, so great a bounty of foodstuffs, homes so exceptional and so filled with commodities of every sort… suddenly transformed [the crusaders] from aliens and paupers into very rich citizens.

Niketas laments:

Constantine’s fine city, the common delight and boast of all nations, was laid waste by fire and blackened by soot, taken and emptied of all wealth, public and private, as well as that which was consecrated to God, by the scattered nations of the West… the dashing to earth of the venerable icons and the flinging of the relics of the saints… seizing as plunder the precious chalices and patens… the outcries of men, screams of women, the taking of captives… and raping of bodies.

After five days, Choniates and his family only escaped from the destruction thanks to a Venetian friend, a wine merchant, who pretended that these Greeks were his booty.

The Latin occupation of Constantinople had many long-lasting effects, not least the removal of many relics, antiquities and treasures to the West. In 1207, for example, Heinrich von Ülmen offered a magnificent gold and enamel reliquary of the True Cross, made in about 963, to his local bishop. Its presence today in the treasury of the cathedral of Limburg is a reminder of the looting of the greatest Christian city of the medieval world. Four ancient bronze horses that had guarded the Hippodrome and inspired competitors from the fifth century, were taken to Venice to adorn the façade of San Marco, where replicas are now visible (plate 30). The crusaders removed sixth-century carvings from the church of St Polyeuktos, sculptures, icons, silks, manuscripts and precious liturgical objects – all part of the vast booty divided between the crusaders.

In this way the leaders of the Fourth Crusade subverted the ideals of the First. The spirit of Christian pilgrimage and adventure, inspired by Pope Urban II’s sermon at Clermont, was destroyed by the Latin occupation of Constantinople. Although this did not put an end to crusading, its dark shadow hung over all attempts to re-create Christian unity against Islam.

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