Post-classical history

Chapter Two

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The Crusader Enemy

Between 1100 and 1138, the emperor of Constantinople and the Crusaders fight against each other

ALEXIUS COMNENUS, the Christian emperor of Constantinople, had distrusted the Crusaders from the beginning.

As each German and Italian and Frankish nobleman arrived in Constantinople with his own private army, ready to cross over the Bosphorus Strait and face the enemy, Alexius had demanded a sacred oath. Whatever “cities, countries or forces he might in future subdue . . . he would hand over to the officer appointed by the emperor.” They were, after all, there to fight for Christendom; and Alexius Comnenus was the ruler of Christendom in the east.1

Just as Alexius had feared, the chance to build private kingdoms in the Holy Land proved too tempting.

The first knight to bite the apple was the Norman soldier Bohemund, who had arrived in Constantinople at the start of the First Crusade and immediately became one of the foremost commanders of the Crusader armies. Spearheading the capture of the great city Antioch in 1098, Bohemund at once named himself its prince and flatly refused to honor his oath. (“Bohemund,” remarked Alexius’s daughter and biographer, Anna, “was by nature a liar.”) By 1100, Antioch had been joined by two other Crusader kingdoms—the Kingdom of Jerusalem and the County of Edessa—and Bohemund himself was busy agitating the Christians of Asia Minor against Byzantium. By 1103, Bohemund was planning a direct attack against the walls of Constantinople itself.2

To mount this assault, Bohemund needed to recruit more soldiers. The most likely source for reinforcements was Italy; Bohemund’s late father, Robert Guiscard, had conquered himself a kingdom in the south of Italy (the grandly named “Dukedom of Apulia and Calabria”), and Bohemund, who had been absent from Italy since heading out on crusade, had theoretically inherited its crown. Alexius knew this as well as Bohemund did, so Byzantine ships hovered in the Mediterranean, waiting to intercept any Italy-bound ships from the principality of Antioch.

So Bohemund was forced to be sneaky. Anna Comnena tells us that he spread rumors everywhere:

“Bohemond,” it was said, “is dead.” . . . When he perceived that the story had gone far enough, a wooden coffin was made and a bireme prepared. The coffin was placed on board and he, a still breathing “corpse,” sailed away from Soudi, the port of Antioch, for Rome. . . . At each stop the barbarians tore out their hair and paraded their mourning. But inside Bohemond, stretched out at full length, was . . . alive, breathing air in and out through hidden holes. . . . [I]n order that the corpse might appear to be in a state of rare putrefaction, they strangled or cut the throat of a cock and put that in the coffin with him. By the fourth or fifth day at the most, the horrible stench was obvious to anyone who could smell. . . . Bohemond himself derived more pleasure than anyone from his imaginary misfortune.3

Bohemund was a rascal and an opportunist, but he almost always got what he wanted; when he arrived in Italy and staged a victorious resurrection, he was able to rouse great public enthusiasm for his fight against Byzantium. In fact, his conquest of Antioch in the east had given him hero stature back in Italy. People swarmed to see him, says one contemporary historian, “as if they were going to see Christ himself.”4

Bohemund and his newly recruited army sailed confidently for the Byzantine borders in 1108. They were promptly defeated by a Byzantine army at Dyrrhachium, on the Greek coast. Bohemund’s long run of good fortune had run out. He was forced to surrender, and although he held on to Antioch, he pledged to leave it to the emperor after his death.

But despite Bohemund’s defeat, Crusader power in the east continued to expand at Alexius’s expense. In 1109, the king of Jerusalem conquered Tripoli, which gave the Crusaders control of the entire coastline.* Two years later, Bohemund of Antioch died, but his heirs refused to hand Antioch over to Byzantine rule as promised. Alexius Comnenus, occupied with the Turks, did not try to reconquer the “impregnable” city of Antioch, but he never forgave the loss.

And there were new Christian threats to the emperor’s power on the horizon, those originating in Italy.

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2.1 The Lands of the Crusades

There was no “Italian kingdom.” (Italy, remarked the Austrian statesman Metternich in 1814, was only a “geographical expression,” a truth that applied to the twelfth century just as well.)5 The north of the peninsula was ruled by the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V. The center was controlled by Pope Paschal II, head of the Christian Church in the west; the south, by Norman kings. Dotted along the coast were the “maritime republics,” Italian cities that controlled coasts and harbors, and which (for all practical purposes) governed themselves. The three most powerful of these were Genoa and Pisa on the western coast, and Venice on the northern end of the Adriatic Sea.

All three had sent soldiers on crusade; all three were now allies of the Crusader kingdoms. Pisan and Venetian and Genoan ships aided the Crusader kings in their territorial struggles against Turks, supplying naval power and an ongoing supply chain to sieges and battles. In exchange, the Crusader kingdoms allowed merchants from the Italian cities to establish trading posts in the east where they carried on a growing trade in pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, and saffron—and lived free from any government but their own.6

Before the First Crusade, when Constantinople and the western knights were still on the same side, Alexius Comnenus had made his own treaty with the maritime republics; in the very first year of his reign, 1081, he had given the Venetians their own quarter in Constantinople, complete with churches and the right to carry on trade tax-free. But as the Crusader kingdoms gained power, the maritime republics became increasingly willing to turn against the Christian emperor of Byzantium.7

In 1118, Alexius Comnenus died in Constantinople, slowly suffocated by growths in his lungs and esophagus. His oldest son succeeded him as John II. Among the immediate problems that he had to solve was the attitude of the Venetians, who had grown increasingly defiant to Byzantine authority. In an attempt to cut them down to size, John Comnenus canceled his father’s 1081 treaty with Venice. This enraged the Venetians, and in retaliation Venetian ships began to pillage and raid the smaller islands of the empire.8

In the middle of this state of hostility, Venice increased its influence in the Crusader kingdoms. In 1123, a Venetian fleet helped the king of Jerusalem besiege the city of Tyre, still in the hands of the Fatimid caliphate, the Arab dynasty that had controlled Jerusalem and still ruled Egypt. The next year, the combined forces of Venice and Jerusalem brought Tyre down. In gratitude, the king of Jerusalem gave the Venetians even more privilege in Jerusalem: a street of their own, a church, a bakery, and exemption from all taxes, of all kinds.9

John Comnenus’s actions were creating an even stronger Crusader-Venetian nexus; and, realizing that this would not go well for Constantinople, John backed away. In 1126, he reaffirmed all of Venice’s privileges in Constantinople.

That temporarily relieved the quarrel between Venice and Byzantium. But Venice had shown its own motivations clearly. The Crusaders had broken the unity of the cross for political power, the chance to build their own islands of political power in the east; the Venetians had broken it for the opportunity to build a commercial empire in the same lands.

Peace did not last long. In 1136, hostility between Byzantium and the Crusader kingdoms erupted once more.

The fuse was lit by the Prince of Antioch, still a thorn in the emperor’s side. After Bohemund’s death, regents had ruled Antioch in the name of his infant son. But now Bohemund II, aged twenty-eight, was in control of his own kingdom; and he wanted to extend his possessions by taking over the Christian kingdom of Cilician Armenia, just to his north.

He was not strong enough to attack directly, but like his father, Bohemund II was a schemer. He invited the kingdom’s ruler, Leo I, to Antioch for a friendly chat, and then took him prisoner, demanding that he purchase his release by handing over the south of his country. Leo I agreed, was set free, and then immediately set about reconquering his lost lands.

The agitation attracted the attention of John Comnenus, who saw in it his own opportunity. Ignoring the Turkish Sultan of Rum, Constantinople’s old enemy in Asia Minor, John invaded the distracted Christian kingdom of Cilicia and claimed its western territories as his own. At this, Leo and Bohemund dropped the quarrel with each other and united together against their common enemy. War between the Christian Crusaders and the Christian emperor in the east was now in the open.

It was a short war. When it became clear that Byzantine armies would make quick work of Cilicia, Bohemund II swapped sides again and agreed to swear allegiance to John Comnenus. This left the diminished Cilician army all alone, isolated in the remaining eastern territories of their shrinking country. Without much difficulty, Byzantine forces overran the diminished country entirely, captured Leo I and his family, and hauled them to prison in Constantinople.10

John Comnenus himself made a triumphal entry into Antioch, with Bohemund II riding gamely at his side, and claimed formal authority as its overlord. “Be of good cheer, O men who love Christ and those who are pilgrims and strangers because of Christ,” wrote one of the court poets. “Do not fear any more murderous hands; the Emperor who loves Christ has put them in chains and broken to pieces the unjust sword.”11

But those murderous hands had themselves been Christian, and while John Comnenus had been occupying himself against his Crusader enemies, the strength of the Turkish governor of Aleppo was building towards conquest of the Christian foe.

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*Tripoli retained its identity as a separate entity, but from now on was ruled by counts who paid homage to the king of Jerusalem; the first was Bertrand of Toulouse, 1109–1112. The king of Jerusalem also had authority over multiple smaller “lordships”; the thirteenth-century writer John of Ibelin says that the four most powerful of these were the Prince of Galilee, the Count of Jaffa and Ascalon, the Lord of Sidon, and the Lord of Oultrejordain. All of these titles were distinct, but firmly under Jerusalem’s oversight.

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