Histories, panegyrics, and letters written in Greek are a vital source of information, not only about the first four major crusades, which passed through Byzantine territory, but also for the later period when containment of the Ottoman Turks came to replace the recapture of Jerusalem as the main aim of crusades. The Greek sources have to be read, however, in the context of the culture, genre, and political circumstances in which they were created.
Authors writing in Constantinople (mod. Istanbul, Turkey) during the Byzantine period were mostly connected in some way to the imperial court and were influenced by two all-important factors. The first was a literary convention dictating that they write in an artificial and archaic language. It was considered unacceptable to write in the everyday Greek that was no doubt spoken in the streets of Constantinople. Instead, authors were expected to employ the ancient Greek of classical Athens. This was the language of authors such as Thucydides and Plato in the fourth and fifth centuries B.C., but it was no longer spoken by the period of the crusades. The use of this highly complex idiom inevitably engendered a certain artificiality into Byzantine prose and explains why Byzantine authors are so difficult to read. It also explains the sharp distinction that they drew between the “Romans”—that is, themselves—and the “barbar- ians”—that is, all others: they were simply imitating their ancient exemplars, who distinguished between the civilized and intelligent Greeks and the barbarians who lived to the north and east. The second major factor influencing Byzantine authors was an internal political agenda. Political activity in Byzantium was centered around the imperial office, and support or opposition to particular policies was voiced in terms of praise or criticism of individual emperors. Byzantine historical writing has therefore been described as Kaiserkritik (the attempt to assess or judge emperors). These two factors are important to bear in mind when reading Byzantine accounts of crusades.
Four Byzantine authors provide information on the First Crusade (1096-1099). The contemporary John Zonaras gives a very short description that contains demonstrable errors. The late thirteenth-century writer Theodore Skoutariotes also gives a short account and adds the intriguing detail that Emperor Alexios I Komnenos deliberately encouraged Western knights to liberate Jerusalem when he made his appeal to Pope Urban II in March 1095, a remark that has been hotly debated by modern crusade historians. Alexios I himself offers an insight into his attitude toward the First
Crusade in his Mousai, his political testament to his son and successor, John II. He counseled John to store up gold and treasure so that he would be better able to deal with any “massed movement hither from the West” [Maas, “Die Musen des Kaisers Alexios I,” pp. 356-358].
The fullest account of the First Crusade, however, is to be found in the Alexiad of Alexios’s daughter Anna Komnene. The Alexiad is a typical work of Byzantine historiography. It is written in archaic Greek and is full of allusions to classical Greek literature. It reproduces the conventional distinction between Greeks and barbarians, designating Godfrey of Bouillon, Bohemund of Taranto, and the other crusaders as barbarians. The use of this convention does not necessarily denote contempt or disdain for the crusaders, whose military prowess Anna clearly admired. Rather, it represents an effort to write within the acceptable literary framework of the circles in which Anna moved. Her main concern is not with the crusaders at all, but with advancing her own political agenda. By praising Alexios I as the ideal emperor and extolling his wise handling of the perceived threat of the First Crusade, Anna was, by implication, criticizing his successor, John II, to whom she had lost out in the power struggles after Alexios’s death.
The same mixture of literary convention and political Kaiserkritik appears in the work of John Kinnamos, who gives an account of the Second Crusade (1147-1149) and of John II’s and Manuel I’s relations with the Frankish principality of Antioch. Kinnamos’s hero is Manuel I, whose secretary he was, and he sometimes plays down the exploits of John II, the better to reflect the achievements of Manuel. Kin- namos also adheres to the literary conventions, though he was by no means as accomplished a stylist as Anna Komnene. His description of the relations between Manuel I and Conrad III, king of Germany, during the passage of the Second Crusade through Byzantine territory in 1147-1148 portrays the latter as an unruly buffoon brought to heel by the superior wisdom of the Byzantine emperor.
The historical work of Niketas Choniates covers the period 1118 to 1207 and is particularly important for two events that Choniates witnessed personally: the passage of the army of Frederick I Barbarossa, the Holy Roman Emperor, through Byzantine territory in 1189-1190 during the Third Crusade (1189-1192), and the sack of Constantinople in April 1204 by the army of the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204). Choniates is sometimes regarded as virulently anti-Latin, but he was following the same literary style and political agenda as Kinnamos and Anna Komnene, and his criticisms of crusaders are often less strident than those leveled against Byzantine emperors. He revised his history in exile in the Byzantine successor state of Nicaea after 1204, introducing stinging criticisms of the emperors of the Angelos family who ruled between 1185 and 1204, and who, in Choniates’ opinion, delivered the empire into the hands of the crusaders. By implication, Choniates was praising Theodore I Laskaris of Nicaea, at whose court he was writing.
Along with histories, there survive numerous panegyrics, or laudatory speeches, addressed by members of the imperial court to Byzantine emperors, praising their policies toward passing crusades and the Frankish states of Outremer during the twelfth century. Often couched in long-winded and pretentious language, these florid orations contain little in the way of concrete historical information, but they are a good guide to how emperors wanted themselves and their actions to be seen. The court orator Michael Italikos, for example, wrote in praise of the expedition of John II against Outremer in 1137-1138, claiming, with some exaggeration, that the count of Edessa had offered the emperor the help of his lance, that the king of Jerusalem had set down his crown and recognized John as the only emperor, and that the sovereignty of Constantinople had been extended over Antioch. Manganeios Prodromos addressed two such speeches to Manuel I. In one he praised Manuel for saving Constantinople from the wild beast from the West, by which he meant Conrad III and the Second Crusade. In another he exulted because the prince of Antioch, Reynald of Châtillon,had been compelled in 1159 to “curl up like a small puppy” at Manuel’s “red-slippered feet”[Magdalino, “The Pen of the Aunt,” p. 19]. Even Niketas Choniates, in sharp contrast to the criticisms later leveled in his history, produced a similar speech in praise of Isaac II Angelos, lauding Isaac for his handling of Frederick Barbarossa during the Third Crusade and extolling him in Homeric terms as the godlike emperor. Just how far these orations could go in presenting inept handling of passing crusades as a resounding success is demonstrated by that delivered by NikephorosChrysoberges before Alexios IV Angelos on 6 January 1204. Chrysoberges eulogizes the emperor because he was able to persuade the leaders of the Fourth Crusade, by then camped outside the walls of Constantinople, that they would prosper only as long as they sided with him. In fact, Alexios’s policy toward the Fourth Crusade was rapidly unraveling, and he was deposed and murdered shortly afterward.
Byzantine writers are less informative about subsequent crusades and the states of Outremer after 1204. This was no doubt partly because no more crusading expeditions crossed Byzantine territory and partly because the emperors were no longer powerful enough to attempt to impose their will on Antioch and Jerusalem. George Akropolites and George Pachymeres, who between them cover the period 1204 to 1308, devote little space to events in the Latin East. However, they have preserved a great deal of information on the period when crusades were being preached against the Byzantines for the defense of the Latin Empire of Constantinople and, after 1261, for the recovery of the city from the Byzantine emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos. Akropolites makes the recapture of Constantinople by Michael VIII in 1261 the climax of his work, and Pachymeres writes at great length about the plans hatched by the king of Sicily, Charles I of Anjou, to lead an expedition against Constantinople after 1267. As is the case with earlier Byzantine historians, there is a strong political agenda at work, and Kaiserkritik provides the central focus of both works. Akropolites, who held high office under Michael VIII, not surprisingly, adopts Michael as his hero, quietly ignoring Michael’s brutal sidelining and blinding of the legitimate emperor of Nicaea, John IV Laskaris. Pachymeres takes a less enthusiastic line toward Michael VIII because he was unable to forgive the emperor’s decision to end the schism between the Eastern and Western churches on papal terms at the Second Council of Lyons (1274), in the hope of defusing the threat from Charles of Anjou.
No major Byzantine histories were written after 1360, but there are a number of letter collections that describe the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans and the crusade of Nikopo- lis, which unsuccessfully attempted to relieve the Turkish siege of Constantinople in 1396. Of these, the most important are the letters of Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos, all written in complex literary Greek and displaying a touching resignation to the desperate straits in which the Byzantine Empire now found itself. The memoirs of the Byzantine courtier George Sphrantzes chronicle the efforts of the Byzantines to persuade the pope to send a crusade to help them against the Turks and their bitter disappointment when it failed to materialize. Recounting the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Sphrantzes bitterly concludes that the Byzantines received as much help from Rome as they did from the sultan of Cairo.
As well as literature written in Constantinople, there are a number of works in Greek produced in those areas of former Byzantine territory that were under Frankish rule after 1204. These works are often written in a more colloquial Greek and display none of the obsession with the person of the emperor that dominates Byzantine histories. The Chronicle of Morea, for example, exists in a Greek version that was probably compiled for the benefit of Greek-speaking Franks and describes the history of Frankish Greece up to 1388. Another Greek version was made in the fifteenth century in which the pronounced anti-Greek bias was removed.
Two Greeks writing on Cyprus under Lusignan rule have left sources of information on the crusades. The monk Neo- phytos (1134-c. 1214), a recluse who spent most of his life living in a cave on the island, wrote a short description of the conquest of Cyprus by Richard the Lionheart, king of England, in 1191. Surprisingly, although Neophytos denounces Richard as a wretch and a sinner, his hostility is mainly reserved for the Greek usurper and ruler of the island, Isaac Komnenos. The demotic Greek chronicler Leontios Makh- airas was the author of a history covering the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and part of the fifteenth, including episodes such as the capture of Alexandria in 1365 by Peter I, king of Cyprus. Makhairas has been accused, however, of being more of a storyteller than a historian, and his chronicle tends to be narrowly focused on events that took place on the island of Cyprus.
There are two major histories in Greek written during the later fifteenth century covering the rise of the Ottoman Turks, the Crusade of Nikopolis (1396), the Crusade of Varna (1444), and the fall of Constantinople (1453). Doukas was writing on the island of Lesbos under the Genoese Gattilusi family, whom he served as secretary and interpreter. A convert to Roman Catholicism, Doukas regards the fall of Constantinople as a well-merited punishment visited on the Byzantines for their refusal to accept ecclesiastical union with Rome. He gives a brief and garbled account of the Crusade of Nikopolis. His treatment of the Crusade of Varna is fuller but still muddled and inaccurate. Predictably, he attributes its failure to the sins of the Christians but makes no mention of what he considers those sins to have been.
Laonikos Chalkokondyles was originally from Athens, which was ruled by the Florentine Acciaiuoli family, and wrote his Demonstrations of History during the 1480s. Unlike Doukas, Chalkokondyles wrote in archaic Greek and adopted a far more sophisticated approach to historical causation. He believed that the Ottomans were successful because of their superior courage, along with a healthy dose of luck, but that their empire would ultimately be overthrown. The defeat of the Crusade of Nikopolis is put down not to divine punishment but to the arrogance and overconfidence of the French, who failed to wait for the arrival of King Sigismund of Hungary. The defeat at Varna is largely blamed on Cardinal Cesarini, who is identified as the prime mover in the decision to break the oath sworn to the Ottoman sultan, Murad II. Chalkokondyles’ account of both battles is rather vague and contains inaccuracies.
Doukas and Chalkokondyles are not, therefore, primary sources of information on crusading expeditions themselves. They are far more informative in their accounts of Latin rule over areas that had once been part of the Byzantine Empire, of the rise of the Ottoman Turks, and of the fall of Constantinople in 1453.