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Peter Frankopan The First Crusade The Call From The East

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  • Peter Frankopan The First Crusade The Call From The East

    Peter Frankopan The First Crusade The Call From The East

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    According to tradition, the First Crusade began at the instigation of Pope Urban II and culminated in July 1099, when thousands of western European knights liberated Jerusalem from the rising menace of Islam. But what if the First Crusade s real catalyst lay far to the east of Rome? In this groundbreaking book, countering nearly a millennium of scholarship, Peter Frankopan reveals the untold history of the First Crusade.

    Nearly all historians of the First Crusade focus on the papacy and its willing warriors in the West, along with innumerable popular tales of bravery, tragedy, and resilience. In sharp contrast, Frankopan examines events from the East, in particular from Constantinople, seat of the Christian Byzantine Empire. The result is revelatory. The true instigator of the First Crusade, we see, was the Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, who in 1095, with his realm under siege from the Turks and on the point of collapse, begged the pope for military support.

    Basing his account on long-ignored eastern sources, Frankopan also gives a provocative and highly original explanation of the world-changing events that followed the First Crusade. The Vatican s victory cemented papal power, while Constantinople, the heart of the still-vital Byzantine Empire, never recovered. As a result, both Alexios and Byzantium were consigned to the margins of history. From Frankopan s revolutionary work, we gain a more faithful understanding of the way the taking of Jerusalem set the stage for western Europe s dominance up to the present day and shaped the modern world."

    About the Author
    Peter Frankopan is the Senior Research Fellow and Faculty Fellow at Worcester College, University of Oxford.
    Author's Home: Oxford, UK

    Highly readable...The First Crusade tells a complex story, but its presentation of political machinations, compromises and betrayals seems utterly convincing. The harsh truths of realpolitik are, alas, with us always.--Michael Dirda"Washington Post" (05/02/2012)

    The Crusades have been at the center of Western thought for 1,000 years, and have been the subject of too many books to count: For Crusades buffs, it sometimes feels like there is nothing new under the sun, and for beginners, it can be difficult to know where to start. Oxford historian Peter Frankopan has crafted a narrative and an argument that will appeal to both groups. In the popular imagination, the First Crusade begins with Pope Urban II's stirring speech at the Council of Clermont in 1095. Frankopan reminds us there is another side to the story. The idea for the crusade, he writes, originated in the East, in a desperate yet strategic plea to the West issued by Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos, whose bold but misguided policies had placed his empire in grave danger. Much of the book is devoted to this often-overlooked Byzantine context, and it makes for a welcome rectification and lively reading. Frankopan's most interesting contribution is the idea that Alexios "knew how to appeal to Westerners," and created the Jerusalem objective as a selling point.--Benjamin Soloway"The Daily" (04/08/2012)

    Frankopan's reassessment of the first crusade through the prism of Byzantium is a useful corrective to the mass of western-centric crusade history...This book offers an accessible and convincing account of the crusade, which was both concocted and executed under the long shadow of Byzantium.--Josh Glancy"Sunday Times" (02/26/2012)

    In his project to give fuller credit to those Byzantine and Turkish leaders who actually caused the First Crusade, Frankopan proves refreshingly undaunted by the prospect of scaling the citadel of almost a thousand years of scholarship. He is like the Byzantine warrior he describes who invented an ingenious flying bomb, "coating young birds with pine resin mixed with wax and sulphur before setting fire to them and despatching them back to their nests inside the walls of the city he was besieging." Scholarly and yet accessible, and unapologetically partisan, The First Crusade, as any vibrant history should, is bound to set a lot of feathers flying...All in all, The First Crusade is a persuasive and bracing work. Peter Frankopan is not yet well known, but he deserves to be. One trusts him to go on ploughing his own furrow and not join the brat-pack of historians.--Nicholas Shakespeare"The Telegraph" (02/06/2012)

    Frankopan [writes] with tremendous literary verve...[The] cry to free Jerusalem has never been better expressed...Frankopan's creative revisionism pierces the armor of medieval history with a new weapon: the call of the East.--Colin Gardiner"Oxford Times" (03/13/2012)

    A dazzling book, perfectly combining deep scholarship and easy readability. The most important addition to Crusading literature since Steven Runciman.--John Julius Norwich, author of "Byzantium"

    In this fluent and dramatic account, Peter Frankopan rightly places the Emperor Alexios at the heart of the First Crusade and in doing so skillfully adds a dimension frequently missing from our understanding of this seminal event. Frankopan illuminates the complex challenges that faced Alexios and deftly depicts the boldness and finesse needed to survive in the dangerous world of medieval Byzantium.--Jonathan Phillips, author of "Holy Warriors: A Modern History of the Crusades"

    Peter Frankopan's reassessment of the Byzantine contribution to the origins and course of the First Crusade offers a compelling and challenging balance to traditional accounts. Based on fresh interpretations of primary sources, lucidly written and forcefully argued, "The First Crusade: The Call from the East" will demand attention from scholars while providing an enjoyable and accessible narrative for the general reader.--Christopher Tyerman, author of "God's War: A New History of the Crusades"

    Filled with Byzantine intrigue in every sense, this book is important, compellingly revisionist and impressive in its scholarly use of totally fresh sources. It refocuses the familiar western story through the eyes of the emperor of the east and fills in the missing piece of the puzzle of the Crusades.--Simon Sebag Montefiore, author of "Jerusalem: The Biography"

    Frankopan's work will challenge scholars while interesting and entertaining general readers The overall contribution of this engagingly written and well-researched book is substantial.--S. A. Throop"Choice"


    Preface and Acknowledgements


    Chapter 1. Europe in Crisis

    Chapter 2. The Recovery of Constantinople

    Chapter 3. Stability in the East

    Chapter 4. The Collapse of Asia Minor

    Chapter 5. On the Brink of Disaster

    Chapter 6. The Call from the East

    Chapter 7. The Response of the West

    Chapter 8. To the Imperial City

    Chapter 9. First Encounters with the Enemy

    Chapter 10. The Struggle for the Soul of the Crusade

    Chapter 11. The Crusade Unravels

    Chapter 12. The Consequences of the First Crusade

    Picture Section



    Further Reading

  • #2

    The City Of Constantinople
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    The Byzantine Empire
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    Crusader Routes Across Europe 1096-7
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    Crusader Routes Across Asia Minor 1097-8
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    The Holy Land
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    • #3
      Preface and Acknowledgements
      As most undergraduates find, at one point in the course of their studies, the prospect of a lecture starting at 9 a.m. can feel unfair and almost cruel. I remember wearily climbing the stairs of the History Faculty in Cambridge in 1992, having to shake myself awake to take a seat to listen to the first lecture of the term on the paper I had chosen, called ‘Byzantium and its neighbours, 800–1200’. Five minutes later, I was suddenly alert and transfixed, as though I had just been given a triple espresso. I was hearing about the ruthless Pecheneg steppe nomads and how they would do anything in return for pepper, scarlet silk and strips of Middle Eastern leather; I was wondering about why pagan Bulgar leaders would choose to become Christians in the ninth century; I was hearing about New Rome – the imperial city of Constantinople.

      The excitement of that first lecture triggered a voracious appetite about the Byzantine Empire and its neighbours. It was a matter of course that I should want to carry on to do postgraduate research, and the only difficulty was choosing a topic. It was the reign of the emperor Alexios I Komnenos that caught my eye, with its wonderfully rich sources and many unanswered questions. It soon became clear, however, that in order to gain any real insight into the Byzantine Empire in the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries, I had to understand the literature of this period, and the Alexiad in particular; then the Greek and Latin sources of southern Italy; then the world of the steppe nomads; then the archaeology and material culture of Constantinople, the Balkans and Asia Minor; then the history of the Crusades, the medieval papacy, the establishment of Latin colonies in the Holy Land … What had started, innocently enough, with an early morning lecture became a passion; occasionally overwhelming, sometimes frustrating, always exciting.

      There are many who deserve thanks for their support and help over the years. The provost and fellows of Worcester College have provided a wonderful and sympathetic home since 1997, outstanding in their generosity and modest in the demands they have made. I owe thanks to Princeton University for awarding me a Stanley J. Seeger Visiting Fellowship, which allowed me a chance to open new avenues of research. The fellows of Harvard are also owed a debt of gratitude for making me a summer fellow at Dumbarton Oaks, where some of the ideas here took shape many moons ago. The staff of the Bodleian Library, above all the Lower Reading Room, and of the History Faculty Library have been wonderfully patient and good-humoured. The same is true of my many colleagues in Oxford where I have had the great privilege to work alongside some of the finest scholars in the field of Late Antique and Byzantine Studies.

      I owe thanks to many of my colleagues in Oxford, but particularly to Mark Whittow, Catherine Holmes, Cyril and Marlia Mango, Elizabeth and Michael Jeffreys, Marc Lauxtermann and James Howard-Johnston who have been generous in sharing their views of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. I am particularly grateful to Jonathan Shepard, who gave that first lecture in Cambridge, for steering me towards Byzantium and for proving an important influence since. Many others, from my undergraduate and graduate students to colleagues with whom I have discussed Constantinople, Alexios and the Crusades late into the night at conferences, are also owed my gratitude. If I have failed to take their good advice, and that of others, I can only apologise.

      Catherine Clarke has been wonderful, encouraging me to tell the story of the First Crusade afresh. This book would not have been written without her guidance and the help of her fantastic team at Felicity Bryan. Will Sulkin at The Bodley Head and Joyce Seltzer at Harvard University Press have been generous and supportive throughout. I owe thanks to Jörg Hensgen for asking difficult questions and making this book better than it would otherwise have been. Chloe Campbell has been a guardian angel, her patience and advice consistent and invaluable. Many thanks to Anthony Hippisley, and also to Martin Lubikowski for his maps. I could not be more grateful to my parents, who have inspired me since I was a boy.

      My greatest debt is to my wife Jessica, who heard about nomads, Byzantium and the eastern Mediterranean on the same day that I did, as I told her excitedly about the new world I had encountered that morning. She listened patiently as I told her I had found my dream subject, and encouraged me to pursue it over the first of many cappuccinos in Clowns; this book is dedicated to her.

      Peter Frankopan
      July 2011


      • #4
        On 27 November 1095, in the town of Clermont in central France, Pope Urban II stood up to deliver one of the most electrifying speeches in history. He had spent the previous week presiding over a church council attended by twelve archbishops, eighty bishops and other senior clergy, before announcing that he wanted to give an address of special importance to the faithful. Rather than speak from the pulpit of the church in Clermont, Urban decided to deliver his words in a nearby field so all who had gathered in anticipation could hear him.

        Nestled at the heart of a chain of dormant volcanoes, with the mightiest of the lava domes, the Puy-de-Dôme, clearly visible just five miles away, the Pope had chosen a spectacular setting for his sermon. The crowd strained to hear him as he began to speak on a cold winter’s day: ‘Dearest brethren,’ he said, ‘I, Urban, supreme pontiff and by the permission of God prelate of the whole world, have come in this time of urgent necessity to you, the servants of God in these regions, as a messenger for divine admonition.’1

        The Pope was about to make a dramatic call to arms, on the point of urging men with military experience to march thousands of miles to the Holy City of Jerusalem. The speech was intended to inform and to provoke, to exhort and to anger; to generate a reaction of unprecedented scale. And it did precisely that. Less than four years later, western knights were camped by the walls of the city where Jesus Christ was crucified, about to take Jerusalem in God’s name. Tens of thousands had left their homes and crossed Europe, spurred on by Urban’s words at Clermont, determined to liberate the Holy City.

        ‘We want you to know’, the Pope explained in his speech at Clermont, ‘what sad cause has brought us to your land and what emergency of yours and all the faithful it is that has brought us here’. Disturbing news had reached him, he said, both from Jerusalem and from the city of Constantinople: the Muslims, ‘a foreign people and a people rejected by God, had invaded lands belonging to Christians, destroying them and plundering the local population’. Many had been brutally murdered; others had been taken prisoner and carried off into captivity.2

        The Pope graphically described the atrocities being committed in the east by the ‘Persians’ – by which he meant the Turks. ‘They throw down altars, after soiling them with their own filth, circumcise Christians, and pour the resulting blood either on the altars or into the baptismal vessels. When they feel like inflicting a truly painful death on some they pierce their navels, pull out the end of their intestines, tie them to a pole and whip them around it until, all their bowels pulled out, they fall lifeless to the ground. They shoot arrows at others tied to stakes; others again they attack having stretched out their necks, unsheathing their swords to see if they can manage to hack off their heads with one blow. And what can I say about the appalling treatment of women, which is better to pass over in silence than to spell out in detail?’3

        Urban did not mean to inform the crowd which had gathered, but to galvanise it: ‘Not I but God exhorts you as heralds of Christ to repeatedly urge men of all ranks whatsoever, knights as well as foot soldiers, rich and poor, to hasten to exterminate this vile race from our lands and to aid the Christian inhabitants in time.’4

        The knighthood of Europe should rise up and advance boldly as warriors of Christ and rush as quickly as they could to the defence of the Eastern Church. A battle line of Christian knights should form and march to Jerusalem, driving out the Turks on the way. ‘May you deem it a beautiful thing to die for Christ in the city where he died for us.’5 God had blessed the knights of Europe with an outstanding ability in battle, great courage and strength. The time had come, he said, for them to make use of their powers and avenge the sufferings of the Christians in the east and to deliver the Holy Sepulchre to the hands of the faithful.6

        The various accounts of what Urban said at Clermont leave little doubt that the Pope’s speech was an oratorical masterpiece, his exhortations carefully weighted, his gruesome examples of Turkish oppression perfectly chosen.7 He went on to describe the rewards awaiting those who took up arms: whoever made the journey east would be eternally blessed. All were encouraged to take up this offer. Crooks and thieves were urged to become ‘soldiers of Christ’, while those who had previously fought against their brothers and kinsmen were told to now join forces and fight lawfully against the barbarians. Whoever went on the journey, inspired by their devotion rather than for the love of money or glory, would receive remission of all their sins. It was, in the words of one observer, ‘a new way to attain salvation’.8

        The response to Urban’s speech was rapturous. Up went the cry: ‘Deus vult! Deus vult! Deus vult!’ – ‘God wills it! God wills it! God wills it!’ The crowd listened intently to hear what the Pope would say next. ‘Let that be a war-cry for you in battle because it came from God. When you mass together to attack the enemy, this cry sent by God will be the cry of all – “God wills it! God wills it!”’9

        Many who heard the Pope’s speech were gripped by enthusiasm, hurrying home to begin preparations. Clerics dispersed to spread the word, while Urban undertook a gruelling schedule, criss-crossing France to promote the expedition, dispatching stirring letters to regions he did not have time to visit. Soon all of France was abuzz with crusading fever. Leading noblemen and knights hurried to join the expedition. Men like Raymond of Toulouse, one of the richest and most powerful figures in Europe, agreed to participate, as did Godfrey, Duke of Lorraine, who was so eager that before setting out, he minted coins bearing the legend ‘GODEFRIDUS IEROSOLIMITANUS’ – ‘Godfrey the Jerusalem pilgrim’.10 News of the expedition to Jerusalem spread quickly and excitedly.11 The First Crusade was under way.

        Four years later, in early July 1099, a battered, bedraggled yet supremely determined force of knights took up position by the walls of Jerusalem. The holiest location in Christendom was about to be attacked and seized from the Muslims. Siege engines had been built and were ready for action. Solemn prayers had been offered. The knights were about to achieve one of the most astonishing feats of endeavour in history.

        The ambition of the First Crusade stemmed in part from the scale of the enterprise. In the past, armies had marched long distances and defied the odds to make sweeping conquests. The campaigns of the great generals of antiquity, such as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Belisarius, showed how vast tracts of territory could be swallowed up by well-led, disciplined soldiers. What made the Crusade different was the fact that the western force was not an army of conquest but of liberation. At Clermont, Urban did not urge the knighthood of Europe to seize places as they journeyed east, benefiting from the resources of newly conquered towns and regions; rather, the aim was to free Jerusalem – and the churches of the east – from the oppression of the so-called pagans.12

        Things had not proved quite so simple, however. The journey across thousands of miles had brought terrible suffering and hardship, countless casualties and enormous sacrifice. Of the 70,000–80,000 soldiers of Christ who had responded to the Pope’s call, no more than a third reached Jerusalem. Urban’s envoy, travelling with the main Crusade leaders and writing back to Rome in the autumn of 1099, put the ratio of survivors to those lost in battle and disease well below this, suggesting that fewer than ten per cent of those who set out ever saw the walls of the Holy City.13

        Pontius Rainaud and his brother Peter, ‘most noble princes’, for example, were murdered by robbers after travelling from Provence through northern Italy and down the Dalmatian coast; they did not even make it halfway to Jerusalem. Walter of Verva got considerably further when he went out to forage for food one day with a band of fellow knights near Sidon (in modern Lebanon). He never came back. Perhaps he was ambushed and killed; maybe he was taken prisoner and sent as a captive deep into the bowels of the Muslim world, never to be heard of again; or perhaps his end was altogether more mundane: a missed step by a heavily laden horse on mountainous terrain could easily have fatal consequences.14

        There was Godevere, a noblewoman who chose to accompany her husband, Count Baldwin of Bouillon, on his journey east. She fell ill near Marash (in modern Turkey) and faded quickly, her condition worsening daily before she slipped away and died. This English-born aristocrat was laid to rest in an obscure and exotic corner of Asia Minor, far away from home, in a place her ancestors and kinsmen would never have heard of.15

        Then there were others, like Raimbold Cretons, a young knight from Chartres, who reached Jerusalem and took part in the assault on the city. He was the first knight to scale the ladders that had been placed against the walls, no doubt striving for the kudos heaped on the first man to break into the city. But Raimbold’s ascent had been watched by a defender of the fortifications who was no less eager, and who dealt him a blow that took one arm clean off and severed the other almost completely; Raimbold at least survived to witness the fall of Jerusalem.16

        And then there were the men whose mission ended in glory. The great leaders of the First Crusade – Bohemond, Raymond of Toulouse, Godfrey and Baldwin of Bouillon, Tancred and others – became household names all over Europe as a result of the capture of the Holy City. Their achievements were commemorated in countless histories, in verse and song, and in a new form of literature: medieval romance. Their success was to provide the benchmark for all later Crusades. It was a tough act to follow.

        The First Crusade is one of the best-known and most written-about events in history. The story of knights taking up arms and crossing Europe to liberate Jerusalem enthralled writers at the time and has thrilled historians and readers ever since. Tales of astounding heroism, of the first encounters with the Muslim Turks, of the hardships suffered by the armed pilgrims on their journey east – ending with the bloody slaughter of the population of Jerusalem in 1099 – have echoed through western culture for nearly a thousand years. Imagery and themes from the Crusade proliferated in the music, literature and art of Europe. Even the word ‘Crusade’ itself – literally, the way of the Cross – came to take on a wider meaning: a dangerous but ultimately successful quest by the forces of good against evil.

        The First Crusade captured the popular imagination because of its drama and violence. But it was not just theatre: the expedition has held its grip on the west because it shaped so much of what was to come: the rise of papal power, the confrontation between Christianity and Islam, the evolution of the concepts of holy war, knightly piety and religious devotion, the emergence of the Italian maritime states and the establishment of colonies in the Middle East. All had their roots in the First Crusade.17

        Not surprisingly, literature on the subject continues to flourish. Although generations of historians have written about the expedition, a remarkable school of modern scholars has produced outstanding and original work over the last few decades. Subjects such as the marching speed of the Crusader army, its provisioning and the coinage it used have been examined in detail.18 The interrelationship between the main narrative western sources has been looked at, recently provocatively so.19 In the past few years, attention has turned to understanding the apocalyptic backdrop to the expedition to Jerusalem and to the early medieval world in general.20


        • #5
          Innovative approaches to the Crusade have been taken: psychoanalysts have suggested that the knights who went to Jerusalem were looking for an outlet to relieve pent-up sexual tension, while economists have examined supply/demand imbalances in the late eleventh century and explored the expedition in terms of the allocation of resources in early medieval Europe and the Mediterranean.21 Geneticists have assessed mitochondrial evidence from southern Anatolia in an effort to understand population movements in the late eleventh century.22 Others have pointed out that the period around the Crusade was the only time before the end of the twentieth century that GDP outstripped population growth, the implication being that there are parallels to be found between medieval and modern demographics and economic boom.23

          And yet, in spite of our perennial fascination with the First Crusade, remarkably little attention has ever been paid to its real origins. For nearly ten centuries, the focus of writers and scholars has been on Pope Urban II, his rousing speech at Clermont and the galvanising of the knighthood of Europe. However, the catalyst for the expedition to Jerusalem was not the Pope, but another figure entirely: the call to arms issued by Urban was the result of a direct appeal for help from the emperor of Constantinople, Alexios I Komnenos, in the east.

          Founded in the fourth century as a second capital from which the Roman Empire could govern its sprawling provinces in the eastern Mediterranean, the ‘New Rome’ soon became known as the city of its founder, the emperor Constantine. Constantinople, nestled on the western bank of the Bosphorus, grew to become the largest city in Europe, adorned with triumphal arches, palaces, statues of emperors and countless churches and monasteries built in the centuries after Constantine adopted Christianity.

          The Eastern Roman Empire continued to flourish after the western provinces faded and ‘Old Rome’ fell in the fifth century. By 1025, it controlled most of the Balkans, southern Italy, Asia Minor as well as large parts of the Caucasus and northern Syria, and it had expanding ambitions in Sicily. Seventy years later, the picture was rather different. Turkish raiders had swarmed into Anatolia, sacking several important cities and severely disrupting provincial society. The Balkans had been subject to decades of near incessant attack, with much the same consequences. The empire’s territories in Apulia and Calabria, meanwhile, had been lost altogether, taken by Norman adventurers who conquered southern Italy in less than two decades.

          The man who stood between the collapse of the empire and its salvation was Alexios Komnenos. An outstanding young general, Alexios had not inherited the throne, but seized it in a military coup in 1081 at the age of around twenty-five. His first years in power were uncomfortable as he struggled to deal with the external threats facing Byzantium while at the same time imposing himself over the empire. As a usurper, lacking the legitimacy of power through succession, Alexios took a pragmatic approach to secure his position, centralising authority and promoting close allies and members of his family to the most important positions in Byzantium. But by the mid-1090s, he was losing his political authority and the Byzantine Empire was reeling from violent incursions on all sides.

          In 1095, Alexios sent envoys to Urban II, with an urgent message. Finding the Pope at Piacenza, they ‘implored his lordship and all the faithful of Christ to bring assistance against the heathen for the defence of this holy church, which had now been nearly annihilated in that region by the infidels who had conquered her as far as the walls of Constantinople’.24 Urban reacted immediately, declaring that he would head north, to France, to gather together forces to aid the emperor. It was this appeal from Alexios that triggered the First Crusade.

          Although the arrival of Byzantine ambassadors is regularly noted in modern histories of the First Crusade, what the emperor was asking for – and why – has been glossed over. As a result, the Crusade is commonly seen as the Pope’s call to arms; as Christian soldiers fighting their way to Jerusalem in the name of the Lord. This, certainly, is what the story became, almost as soon as the knights stood on the walls of the city in 1099, and it has been almost uniformly adopted by writers, artists, film-makers and others ever since. But the true origins of the First Crusade lie in what was happening in and around Constantinople at the end of the eleventh century. This book will show that the roots of the expedition lay not in the west but in the east.

          Why did Alexios request help in 1095? Why did he appeal to the Pope, a religious leader, without significant military resources of his own? Following a poisonous falling-out between the Catholic and Orthodox churches in 1054, why was Urban willing to provide assistance to the emperor in the first place? Why did Alexios wait till 1095 to make his plea for support when the Turks had made themselves masters of Asia Minor in 1071, after the disastrous defeat of the Byzantine army at the battle of Manzikert? In short, why was there a First Crusade?

          There are two reasons why the history of the Crusade has been so distorted. First, after the capture of Jerusalem a powerful school of history writing in western Europe, dominated almost exclusively by monks and clerics, went to great lengths to stress the centrality of the role played by the Pope in conceiving the expedition. This was in turn reinforced by the creation of a string of Crusader states in the Levant based on Jerusalem, Edessa, Tripoli, and above all on Antioch. These new states needed stories that explained how they came to be under the control of western knights. In the case of both the origins of the Crusade and its aftermath, the role of Byzantium and of Alexios I Komnenos were extremely inconvenient – not least since many successes of the Crusaders came at the Eastern Roman empire’s expense. It suited western historians to explain the expedition from the perspective of the papacy and the Christian knighthood, and to leave the eastern emperor to one side.

          The second reason for the heavy focus on the west stems from the problems of the historical sources. The Latin sources for the First Crusade are well known – and are wonderfully juicy. Narrative accounts such as the anonymous Gesta Francorum provide one-sided reports of the personal bravery of individuals such as the heroic Bohemond on the one hand, and the skulduggery of the ‘wretched’ Emperor Alexios, scheming to outdo the Crusaders with his cunning and fraud on the other. Authors like Raymond of Aguilers, Albert of Aachen and Fulcher of Chartres provide no less lively and opinionated guides to an expedition which saw the competing egos of its leaders clash repeatedly, and where duplicity and treachery were regular features. They record conflicts where success frequently flirted with disaster; they report how morale plunged as the heads of captured knights were catapulted into the Crusaders’ camp during the sieges of towns; they note their horror at priests being suspended upside down over city walls and beaten to antagonise the westerners; they tell of noblemen cavorting with lady-friends in orchards, ambushed and gruesomely executed by Turkish scouts.

          The primary sources from the east, by contrast, are more complex. The problem is not the quantity of material, for there are a great many accounts, letters, speeches, reports and other documents written in Greek, Armenian, Syriac, Hebrew and Arabic that offer precious glimpses into the prelude of the Crusade. The issue, rather, is that these have been much more poorly exploited than their Latin counterparts.

          The most important and difficult of these texts from the east is the Alexiad. Written in the middle of the twelfth century by Alexios’ eldest daughter, Anna Komnene, this account of the emperor’s reign has been both misused and misunderstood. The text, written in florid Greek, is full of nuances, allusions and hidden meanings that are easily overlooked. In particular, the chronological sequence of events provided by the author is often unreliable: events are frequently misplaced, split into two or duplicated.

          Writing nearly five decades after the episodes she describes, Anna Komnene can be forgiven for making occasional mistakes about the order in which events happened – a point the author herself acknowledges in the text: ‘As I write these words, it is nearly time to light the lamps; my pen moves slowly over the paper and I feel myself almost too drowsy to write as the words escape me. I have to use barbaric names and I am compelled to describe in detail a mass of events which occurred in rapid succession. The result is that the main body of the history and the continuous narrative are bound to become disjointed because of interruptions. Let those who are enjoying the text not bear me a grudge for this.’25

          The image of the historian crouching over a script, working late into the night, is an emotive and charming one; but here it is a literary device, as is the author’s crafted apology about her mistakes, a standard disclaimer used by the writers from classical antiquity whose works provide a template for the Alexiad. In fact, Anna Komnene’s work is extremely well researched, drawing on an impressive archive of letters, official documents, campaign notes, family histories and other written material.26

          While some problems of the Alexiad’s chronology have been identified by scholars, a great many have not. This in turn has led to major errors in the commonly accepted sequence of events that took place in the reign of Alexios I Komnenos. The most significant of these concerns the state of Asia Minor on the eve of the Crusade. The picture presented by Anna Komnene’s account is misleading; in fact, careful re-evaluation of the Alexiad – taken together with other source material – reveals startling conclusions that differ radically from long-accepted views. In the past, it has been assumed that the Byzantine emperor sought military assistance from the west to undertake an ambitious and opportunistic reconquest of Asia Minor from a position of strength. The reality was very different. His call for help was a desperate last roll of the dice for a ruler whose regime and empire was teetering on the brink of collapse.

          The fact that the situation in Asia Minor on the eve of the First Crusade has not been properly understood in the past is highly significant. The knights were heading east to take on the Turks, a formidable enemy, who had brought the Byzantine Empire to its knees. Originally part of the Oguzz tribal confederation which Arab historians located to the east of the Caspian Sea, the Turks were a steppe people whose military prowess gave them increasing influence over the caliphate in Baghdad as it fragmented in the later tenth century. From the 1030s, not long after their adoption of Islam, the Turks were the dominant force in the region, less than a generation later becoming masters of Baghdad itself after their leader, Tughril Beg, was appointed sultan with full executive powers by the caliph.

          Their progress westwards was relentless. Raids soon began on the Caucasus and Asia Minor, causing disruption and provoking panic among the local population. The Turks could move quickly and seemingly without trace on squat central Asian horses whose strength and stamina made them well suited for the mountainous terrain and steep ravines of this region; they were ‘swift as eagles, with hooves as solid as rock’, according to one source. The Turks reportedly attacked those they came across like wolves devouring their food.27

          By the time of Urban’s speech at Clermont, the Turks had demolished the provincial and military administration of Anatolia that had stood intact for centuries and captured some of the most important towns of early Christianity: places like Ephesus, home of St John the Evangelist, Nicaea, the location of the famous early church council, and Antioch, the original see of St Peter himself, were all lost to the Turks in the years before the Crusade. Little wonder, then, that the Pope pleaded for the salvation of the church in the east in his speeches and letters in the mid-1090s.

          The context of the First Crusade is to be found not in the foothills of Clermont or in the Vatican, but in Asia Minor and in Constantinople. For too long, the narrative of the Crusade has been dominated by western voices. But the knights who set out in high expectation in 1096 were reacting to a developing crisis on the other side of the Mediterranean. Military collapse, civil war and attempted coups had brought the Byzantine Empire to the edge. It was to the west that Alexios I Komnenos was forced to turn, and his appeal to Pope Urban II became the catalyst for all that followed.


          • #6
            CHAPTER 1 Europe in Crisis
            THE FIRST CRUSADE defined the Middle Ages. It established a common identity for the knighthood of Europe, pinned firmly on the Christian faith. It influenced behaviour, with piety and service emerging as highly prized personal qualities, extolled in verse, prose, song and art. It idealised the concept of the devout knight, fighting for God. It established the Pope as a leader not just of spiritual significance but of political importance. It gave common purpose to western principalities, creating a framework where the defence of the church was not just desirable but an obligation. Out of the First Crusade grew the ideas and structures which shaped Europe until the Reformation.

            Ironically, the Crusade was itself the product of discord and disunity, for Europe was riven by turmoil and crisis in the second half of the eleventh century. This was a time of conquest and upheaval across the continent. England was under Norman occupation, having barely managed to resist persistent attacks from Scandinavia. Apulia, Calabria and Sicily were also in the process of being transformed by immigrants from Normandy, first mercenaries and then opportunists, who were drawn south by the rich financial rewards on offer. Spain was in transition, its Muslim occupiers being evicted one town after another following centuries of control over the peninsula. Germany too was in upheaval, with major uprisings breaking out against the crown on a regular basis. The Byzantine Empire, meanwhile, was under chronic pressure, with its northern, eastern and western frontiers threatened, assaulted and overrun by increasingly aggressive neighbours.

            The eleventh century was also a time of violent dispute between the papacy and the leading magnates of Europe which saw rulers being dramatically excommunicated, then sometimes rehabilitated only to be thrown out of communion once again. Almost all the main figures of this period – Henry IV of Germany, Philip I of France, King Harold of England, the Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos and the Norman duke Robert Guiscard – were excommunicated at least once by the papacy as part of its attempts to assert authority over the secular world.

            So great were the divisions even within the church that in the late eleventh century there were rival popes, each claiming to be the legitimate heir to the throne of St Peter and backed up by rival clergies claiming to be the legitimate electing body. Then there was the Byzantine church, which was sharply at odds with the practices and teachings that were standard in the west, and in a state of schism with the papacy. Yet the most poisonous and sustained of the arguments engulfing Europe in this period threatened the viability of the church as a whole: a major fallout had devastated relations between Pope Gregory VII and the most powerful man in Europe, Henry IV of Germany. Henry’s predecessors had established control over northern Italy and made themselves emperors of Rome in the 960s; as a result they paid close and careful attention to the papacy, retaining a right to be involved in papal elections. Relations between Gregory VII and Henry IV started promisingly enough after the appointment in April 1073 of Gregory, ‘a religious man, well versed in both branches [sacred and secular] of knowledge, a most pre-eminent lover of equity and righteousness, strong in adversity … honourable, modest, sober, chaste, hospitable’.1 The Pope took heart from messages sent by the emperor after his election. Henry, he wrote to one supporter, ‘has sent us words full of pleasantness and obedience, and such as we remember that neither he nor his predecessors ever sent to Roman pontiffs’.2

            It did not take long, though, for relations to degenerate. Even before becoming pope, Gregory had been a pragmatist with strong views about reforming the church and centralising Rome’s power more effectively. Of particular concern was the issue of appointments to high offices in the church, many of which were being sold in what amounted to little better than organised corruption. Some senior positions brought lucrative stipends as well as influence and authority, making them a highly desirable sinecure – useful rewards to be handed out by powerful rulers.3

            Gregory’s attempts at reform by banning the sale of religious offices and asserting that he alone had the right to make appointments set him on a collision course with Henry, who deeply resented the Pope’s interference in the affairs of the German church. By 1076, relations had broken down to such an extent that the Pope excommunicated Henry, declaring that ‘on behalf of Almighty God, the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit, through your power and authority, I deny to King Henry, son of the emperor Henry, who has risen up with unheard of pride against your church, the government of the entire kingdom of the Germans and of Italy, and I absolve all Christians from the bond of any oath that they have taken, or shall take, to him; and I forbid anyone to serve him as king’.4

            Not surprisingly, this inflamed tensions, with Henry’s supporters declaring that the Pope was a criminal and bishops loyal to the German sovereign passing the sentence of excommunication on the pontiff himself.5 Although the two men were briefly reconciled in the later 1070s, their relationship broke down once and for all after the Pope was persuaded to give his backing to powerful enemies of the emperor in Germany, who were seeking to depose him. After Gregory endorsed the claims of one of these rivals to the throne, praising his humility, obedience and love of truth in contrast to Henry’s pride, disobedience and deceit, the emperor took drastic steps.6

            The bishops of Germany and northern Italy were summoned to a church council at Brixen in June 1080. There it was proposed that Gregory should be expelled from Rome by force and replaced by an ‘orthodox’ pope. Wibert, archbishop of Ravenna, was nominated as pope elect, with his coronation to take place in Rome the following spring.7 After being delayed by uprisings in Germany, Henry IV finally marched into Italy, advancing on Rome and taking the city in 1084. Wibert was immediately crowned as Pope Clement III in the basilica of St Peter. A week later, Henry himself was crowned as emperor of Rome. ‘We have been ordained by Pope Clement’, he wrote, ‘and have been consecrated emperor by consent of all the Romans on the Holy Day of Easter with the exultation of the whole Roman people.’8

            The establishment of Clement as a rival pope, claiming to be the true heir to the throne of St Peter and supported by a swathe of senior clergy, threatened to split the Roman church in two. Although Gregory himself took refuge in the Lateran and eventually escaped from Rome to Salerno, where he died in exile in 1085, uncertainty and confusion continued to cloud the papacy. It took nearly a year for a successor to be named to take Gregory VII’s place, and even then the candidate chosen as pope, Victor III, had to be installed more or less by force. His death after barely eighteen months in office led to a new election and created further upheaval. In March 1088, Odo, cardinal bishop of Ostia, was named pope, taking the name Urban II; yet he was not recognised in lands subject to Henry IV in Germany or northern Italy. The church was in disarray.

            The schism in the Western Church showed little sign of healing in the years that followed. In the decade before the Council of Clermont in 1095, it was Clement III – and not Urban II – who was in the stronger position. The latter, after all, was rarely even able to get inside the walls of Rome in the first years of his pontificate: even his election had taken place in Terracina, well away from the Eternal City, which was still firmly held by forces loyal to the emperor. Although he briefly managed to enter Rome in 1089, celebrating with a procession, a coronation Mass and proclaiming an encyclical, he quickly withdrew again, not daring to risk staying in the city for any length of time.9 When he returned at Christmas in 1091 and 1092, he was forced to camp outside the city walls, unable to undertake the most basic duties of the Pope, including saying Mass in St Peter’s.10

            The idea that Urban might be able to move and inspire the Christian knights of Europe to rise up, bear arms and march on Jerusalem would have been laughable at the time of his election. Although the Pope followed developments in Spain closely, where gains were being made at the expense of the Muslims, he could do little more than send enthusiastic letters of support and encouragement.11 But given Urban’s predicament at home, his concern for the fate of the faithful in the east, while perhaps heartfelt, would have carried little weight and no influence in a world where he struggled to rally supporters even in Rome, let alone elsewhere in Europe.

            In contrast, Clement III was relentlessly reinforcing his position as the true head of the Catholic Church. In the late 1080s, he sent a spate of letters to Lanfranc, archbishop of Canterbury, inviting him to Rome, asking for Peter’s pence to be sent to him, and offering to intervene in disputes in England. He also urged the king of England and the bishops to provide help to the mother church.12 Clement communicated with the Serbs, confirming clerical appointments and sending a special ecclesiastical vestment, a pallium, to the archbishop of Antivari.13 He made contact with the head of the church in Kiev, the capital of the medieval Russian state, sending him messages of goodwill.14 He was behaving exactly as the Pope should: officiously contacting, advising and supporting leading figures in the Christian world. It was Clement III, and not Urban, who looked likely to deliver the sort of speech and produce the sort of reaction that might unite the church in the mid-1090s.

            Where Urban II did have an advantage over his rival was in his relationship with the Eastern Church – though this itself was not without difficulty. Originally, Rome and Constantinople had been two of the five primary sees of Christendom, along with Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem. The fall of the last three to the Islamic conquests of the seventh century elevated the status of the remaining two cities to the point of endemic rivalry. Disputes about their relative importance, as well as about matters of doctrine and practice, flared up on a regular basis, and furious exchanges between Pope Nicholas I and the head of the church in Constantinople, the patriarch Photios, had brought relations to a particular low point in the ninth century.

            Normally, though, time soothed tensions and these quarrels were broken up by long periods of co-operation. A tenth-century Byzantine manual reveals how letters sent by the emperor in Constantinople to the Pope should be addressed, following a set formula: ‘In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, our one and only God. [name left blank] and [name left blank], emperors of the Romans, faithful to God, to [name left blank] most holy Pope of Rome and our spiritual father’. Likewise, respectful terms with which to address the emperor were set out for ambassadors from Rome.15 These formulas suggest that co-operation between east and west was the norm rather than the exception.


            • #7
              In the middle of the eleventh century, however, relations between Rome and Constantinople emphatically broke down. A mission sent by Pope Leo IX in 1054 to explore common interests in Italy, where Byzantium controlled the regions of Apulia and Calabria, went spectacularly awry. Negotiations started off on the wrong foot, with discussion turning not to a possible alliance but to differences between the Latin and Greek rites in celebrating the Eucharist. As the excitable source material shows, it was of real significance to resolve whether leavened or unleavened bread should be used for the body of Christ. Most important of all, however, was the addition of the so-called filioque clause to the Creed, by which it was claimed that the Holy Spirit proceeded not just from the Father, but also from the Son. Initially proposed at a church council in Spain in the sixth century, which was, significantly, not attended by many leading clerics, its use had been initially condemned even by the papacy. However, the controversial filioque clause became increasingly prevalent in a world where it was not always easy to regulate practices. By the early eleventh century it was used so widely that it was formally accepted as a standard part of the Creed. The addition of the clause by Rome was furiously decried in the eastern Mediterranean, above all in Constantinople.

              After the embassy reached the Byzantine capital, matters quickly came to a head. On 16 July 1054, the papal legate, Cardinal Humbert of Silva Candida, along with other envoys from Rome, strode into the great church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople as the Eucharist was being celebrated. In a moment of high drama, they walked directly up to the front of the church, not pausing to pray. Before the clergy and the congregation, they produced a document and brazenly placed it on the high altar. The patriarch of Constantinople, it read, had abused his office and was guilty of many errors in his beliefs and teaching. He was forthwith excommunicated, to suffer with all the worst heretics in hell, who were listed carefully. The patriarch and his supporters were condemned to eternal damnation, to suffer with ‘the Devil himself and his angels, unless they should repent. Amen, Amen, Amen.’ With that, Humbert turned around and walked out of the church, pausing to pat the dust from his sandals as he reached the doors of Hagia Sophia. He then turned to the congregation and declared solemnly: ‘Let God see and judge’.16

              This was the nadir in relations between Rome and Constantinople, to this day known as the Great Schism. The animosity between east and west now became almost institutionalised. In 1078, for example, Gregory VII issued a notice excommunicating Nikephoros III Botaneiates, even though the new emperor had not had any contact with Rome; three years later, the Pope did the same to Alexios I Komnenos after the latter deposed Nikephoros.17 Around the same time, the Pope not only sanctioned an attack on Byzantium, but issued its leader with a banner to carry into battle against the imperial army. He even went so far as to endorse Robert Guiscard, the architect of the assault, as the legitimate candidate for the throne of Constantinople itself, even though the Norman had neither a genuine claim nor a realistic chance of installing himself as emperor.18

              This puts Urban’s call to arms at Clermont into sharp relief. As the contemporary sources from late 1095 and early 1096 make clear, the Pope drew careful attention to the suffering of Christians in Asia Minor and to the persecution of the churches in the east – that is to say, the churches following the Greek rite.19 What led to this remarkable turnaround in the relations between Rome and Constantinople? The reasons for this extraordinary shift lay in the struggle for control of the church as a whole in the later eleventh century and, in particular, with the weakness of Urban’s position in the west.

              When he became pope, Urban was keenly aware that he was being outmanoeuvred by Clement III and his protector Henry IV; he was forced to build bridges wherever he could. One of the first steps he took was to conciliate with Constantinople. Soon after his election in 1088, the Pope sent a small delegation to the imperial capital to discuss the sensitive topics that had provoked the falling-out three decades earlier. After being received by the emperor, they set out the issues in ‘a gentle and fatherly way’, as one contemporary commentator put it, covering topics such as the Greek use of leavened bread, as well as the removal of the Pope’s name from the holy diptychs of Constantinople, which contained the lists of the bishops, living and dead, considered to be in communion with the church.20

              The emperor, Alexios I, was a former general with spartan tastes and a no-nonsense approach to his faith – a man who stayed awake late into the night with his wife immersed in study of the Holy Scriptures, according to their eldest daughter.21 He listened to the Pope’s ambassadors and ordered a synod to be convened to discuss their grievances, which included the complaint that churches following the Latin rite in the capital had been closed down, thereby preventing westerners living in the city from worshipping. The emperor also personally presided over a meeting attended by the patriarchs of Constantinople and Antioch, two archbishops and eighteen bishops, and asked to see the documents relating to the decision to remove the Pope’s name from the diptychs. When informed that these did not exist, and furthermore that there appeared to be no canonical basis for the absence of the Pope’s name, he ordered that it be reinserted, according to custom.22

              Alexios went further. Through the envoys, the emperor urged the Pope to come to Constantinople to put an end to the disputes which had been so damaging to the church in the past. In a document stamped with the imperial gold seal, he suggested that a special council should be convened, made up of senior Greek and Latin clergy, to discuss the major areas of difference. For his part, the emperor promised to abide by the conclusions reached in order to achieve a united definition of the Church of God.23

              The patriarch of Constantinople, Nicholas III Grammatikos, then wrote separately to the Pope in October 1089, expressing his delight that Urban was keen to affect an end to ecclesiastical dispute. The Pope was wrong, Nicholas wrote politely, to think that the patriarch personally harboured animosity to Latin Christians. He was mistaken too to think that churches using the western rite in the capital had been closed; in fact, the westerners living in Constantinople were allowed to worship using the Latin rite. ‘We desire with all our heart, more than anything, the unity of the church’, Nicholas wrote.24

              These steps reopened dialogue with Rome and paved the way for a major realignment of the Byzantine Empire on the eve of the First Crusade. A senior Byzantine cleric, Theophylact Hephaistos, was commissioned to prepare a document deliberately playing down the significance of the differences between Greek and Latin customs to soothe misgivings in the Eastern Church. Many were petty, he wrote. Latin priests observed a fast on Saturdays, rather than on Sundays; they fasted incorrectly during Lent; unlike Orthodox priests, they thought nothing of wearing rings on their fingers, and also cut their hair and shaved their beards; they were not dressed in black while celebrating the liturgy but wore coloured silk vestments; they did not genuflect correctly; and unlike Greek monks who were strict vegetarians, Latin monks were only too happy to eat lard and various meats. All these issues could be easily resolved, the cleric argued, as could the question of leavening bread for use in the Eucharist.25 The filioque addition to the Creed was an altogether more serious problem, he acknowledged, and those who accepted the clause would descend into the flames of hell.26 Nevertheless, he was still hopeful that the clause would be removed.27

              This careful repositioning was intended to close the gap between Constantinople and Rome, not just in religious affairs, but to pave the way for a political and even a military alliance. It was a crucial staging post in the genesis of the First Crusade, and a prerequisite for the Pope’s appeal to the knighthood of Europe to march to Byzantium’s defence just a few years later.

              Urban reacted quickly to the positive signs from Constantinople. He travelled south to meet with one of his few supporters, Count Roger of Sicily, and seek his approval for improving links with Byzantium. Roger had long been concerned by Henry IV’s aggressive intervention in Italy. In the mid-1080s some of the German emperor’s supporters had called on Henry to advance to Constantinople and then to Jerusalem where glorious coronations would await him; along the way he should also establish himself over the Normans by taking control of Apulia and Calabria, the latter at Roger’s expense.28 Roger gave an unequivocal reply when he heard about Alexios’ invitation to hold a council to mend relations: the Pope should attend, and rid the church of the Great Schism.29

              This was exactly what Urban wanted to hear: it gave him the chance to take on the role of unifier of the Church. In the context of his struggle with Clement III, Urban’s breakthrough was invaluable – and Clement knew it. The latter found out about his rival’s exchanges with Constantinople from Basil of Calabria, a hard-line Byzantine cleric who had become disaffected by being prevented by Urban from taking up his see in southern Italy. Basil had been present at the Council of Melfi in the autumn of 1089 when it was made plain that he would be installed in Reggio if he recognised the Pope’s authority. Appalled to see two of his colleagues do just that, Basil exploded with fury.30 In his eyes, Urban was unworthy of the office of pope, just like his ‘three times cursed’ predecessor Gregory VII. He wrote to the patriarch of Constantinople describing the Pope as a cowardly wolf who ran away when faced with the most basic questions about Christian doctrine. He was a heretic who had also taken to selling ecclesiastical offices to the highest bidder.31

              Basil’s personal misgivings mask the fact that the Council of Melfi was a significant moment for rebuilding relations between Rome and Constantinople. What Basil saw as the unforgivable submission of his colleagues to take up their sees at Rossano and Santa Severina were in fact more likely to be important cases of new co-operation between the Pope and Byzantium in southern Italy.32

              Basil nevertheless took matters into his own hands. As soon as he learnt about the conciliatory moves in Constantinople, he made contact with Clement III. The antipope replied immediately. ‘Please send us quickly the letter from our holy brother the Patriarch of Constantinople which you have mentioned’, referring to the instructions Basil had been sent in order to reconcile with Rome. ‘We also must reply to him about the subject which is of such concern; he should know that everything has been duly prepared by us – for we too wish, and welcome, peace and unity.’33 Clement reassured Basil about his own grievances, promising him that these would soon be resolved in his favour.34 Yet if Clement did try to initiate dialogue of his own with Constantinople, it did not get far. Although he had shown an interest in building bridges with the Greek church – writing to John, the Byzantine-born metropolitan, or archbishop, of Kiev to raise the prospect of closer ties with the Greek church – his overtures came to nothing. For Alexios, Urban was a more attractive ally than his German-backed counterpart.35

              For one thing, Urban still retained influence in southern Italy, a region that had been under Byzantine control for centuries until a disastrous set of reversals in the 1050s and 1060s at the hands of Norman conquerors whose power spread, according to Anna Komnene, like gangrene – ‘for gangrene, once established in a body, never rests until it has invaded and corrupted the whole of it’.36 Although the fall of Bari to the Normans in 1071 brought imperial rule of Apulia and Calabria to an ignominious end, the provinces were still home to a primarily Greek-speaking population who looked naturally to Constantinople for their lead. This link was now reactivated in the wake of rapprochement between Rome and Constantinople. Since the Norman conquest, wills, sales charters and other formal documents had carried the name of the Norman duke to date them. But from the start of the 1090s, Alexios’ name and regnal year began to appear with increasing frequency, a clear sign that the locals were looking once again to the emperor for leadership.37 The rehabilitation of Byzantium went a step further when Urban lifted the excommunication that had been passed on Alexios in 1081.38

              There were other signs of a realignment of interests between east and west. In the early 1090s, the Greek monastery of San Filippo di Fragalà benefited from a surge of favours. Several churches were placed under its authority and additional lands were granted to its community of monks by Count Roger of Sicily, who issued a decree that the monastery would be free from the interference of the Latin clergy, and from ‘the barons, the strategoi, the viscounts as well as all others’.39 And there were examples of significant co-operation elsewhere, specifically with regard to military matters. Faced with major invasions across the Balkans in the early 1090s, Alexios I sent appeals to all quarters to bolster his forces. Imperial envoys were also sent to Urban in Campania, who promptly dispatched men in the spring of 1091 to help Alexios fight Pecheneg steppe nomads who had launched a massive invasion from the Danube deep into Thrace. The subsequent battle of Lebounion, which saw the annihilation of this fearsome nomadic tribe, was one of the most important battles in the empire’s history.40


              • #8

                By 1095, therefore, much had been done to heal the long-standing rift between Rome and Constantinople. Although the council proposed by Alexios a few years earlier had yet to take place, emperor and Pope had struck up a good working relationship. Indeed, if a later addition to a twelfth-century source is to be believed, together they had already developed a plan. Envoys reportedly arrived at the court of King Zvonimir of Croatia early in 1090, sent jointly by Urban and Alexios, appealing for knights to provide assistance to the beleaguered church in Byzantium and to relieve Muslim oppression in Jerusalem. If true, this was a dry run for the Pope’s appeal at Clermont: a call for help from Old and New Rome; the lure of Jerusalem; and military service as an act of devotion. In Zvonimir’s case, however, it did not have the desired effect: according to the interpolation, his knights were so appalled that Zvonimir was prepared to fight somebody else’s war that they murdered him (although other sources claim that the king died peacefully of old age).41

                By pursuing reconciliation with Constantinople, Urban deliberately positioned himself as the leader of the Christian world, which had been ravaged by years of intense competition, struggle and strife. As one contemporary chronicler put it, at the end of the eleventh century the church was in a state of chaos. ‘In all parts of Europe’, wrote Fulcher of Chartres, ‘peace, virtue and faith were brutally trampled upon by stronger men and lesser, inside the church and out. It was necessary to put an end to all these evils.’42 Yet Urban needed a wider scheme to establish himself at the heart of Christendom. The headway he had made in his dealings with the Greek church was not enough on its own to have any wider meaning when it came to the rivalry with Clement III in Rome, let alone strengthen his position elsewhere in Europe.

                In the mid-1090s, however, the situation began to change. First, sudden and unexpected developments in Germany offered an extraordinary opportunity to outflank the antipope and his chief supporter, the emperor Henry IV. Urban was boosted by high-profile defections from Henry’s camp, frustrated by the emperor’s heavy-handedness. One was Henry’s beautiful young wife, who sought out the Pope to complain that she had been forced to commit so many ‘unusual filthy acts of fornication with so many men that even her enemies would excuse her flight [from the emperor]. All Catholics should be moved to compassion because of her treatment.’43 In a highly charged climate where the Pope’s supporters would seize on anything that could be used to discredit the emperor, sordid gossip was circulated gleefully by polemicists.44 More important still was Conrad, Henry IV’s son and heir, a serious young man who decided to renounce his father and together with his vassals offered his support to Urban, exhausted by the never-ending quarrels within the church and unsettled by doubts about his prospects as a result of military setbacks suffered by his father in northern Italy.

                These developments gave the Pope an immediate and emphatic boost. Urban announced that he would hold a council in March 1095 in Piacenza, in the heart of territory previously loyal to Henry IV and in the heart of Clement III’s original archbishopric of Ravenna. With Henry’s estranged wife appearing at the council to condemn her husband, the antipope was fiercely denounced, before an amnesty was offered to all the clergy who had previously sided with the emperor. Immediately after the council, Conrad met with Urban at Cremona where he greeted the Pope by acting the part of a groom, holding the bridle of the pontiff’s horse in a ritual mark of deference and public humility.45 At a second meeting a few days later, Conrad swore an oath to protect the Pope, his office and his property. In return, Urban promised to recognise Conrad’s claim to the imperial throne.46 He also proposed a marriage between his new ally and the daughter of Count Roger of Sicily, Urban’s principal supporter in Italy. It would be much to Roger’s honour and to his future profit if a marriage was arranged, the Pope wrote to the count. The marriage was duly concluded in Pisa in splendid style, and Conrad was settled with lavish gifts from his wealthy father-in-law.47 This helped bring about a dramatic improvement in Urban’s position, taking him from an isolated figure forced to camp outside the walls of Rome to a figure of central importance in the politics of Europe.

                Something else happened at Piacenza, however, that would change the position of the papacy forever. As the council met to discuss ecclesiastical affairs – definitions of heresy, the excommunication of the king of France on the charge of adultery, matters relating to the priesthood – envoys arrived from Constantinople.48 They brought terrible news: the Byzantine Empire was on the point of collapse, and help was urgently needed. Urban grasped the implications immediately. Here was the chance to unite the church once and for all. He announced he was heading north – to Clermont.

                Crusade historians – medieval and modern – have followed him there. But what were the setbacks that had taken place in the east? Why was help so desperately needed? What had gone wrong in Byzantium? To understand the origins of the Crusade, it is not to the foothills of central France we must turn, but to the imperial city of Constantinople.


                • #9
                  CHAPTER 2 The Recovery of Constantinople
                  CONSTANTINOPLE WAS DESIGNED to inspire awe. Like Old Rome, it was a vast and immensely imposing capital. A visitor approaching over land would have first seen the massive walls and the huge aqueducts carrying water into the city. Fortified to a height of twelve metres, the Land Walls ran from the Golden Horn to the Sea of Marmara. Rebuilt by the emperor Theodosios in the fifth century, they were designed to deter even the most ambitious enemy. Five metres thick, the walls were protected by ninety-six towers, offering views over the approaches from the west and the north. Entry was controlled by nine well-guarded gates, but those only provided access past the outer walls. The traveller then had to cross a deep moat and pass through another ring of walls before passage opened up along one of the main roads leading into the heart of the city.

                  If anything, arrival by sea was even more spectacular. Constantinople lay on the north bank of the Sea of Marmara at the narrowest point separating Europe and Asia Minor. The monuments, churches and palaces of the city, glimpsed from the deck of a boat, made for a breath-taking first impression. The capital stretched as far as the eye could see, covering 30,000 hectares. Its population, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, was about ten times greater than that of the largest cities in Europe.

                  Constantinople’s principal buildings too were astonishing. Most astounding of all was the magnificent church of Hagia Sophia, constructed by the emperor Justinian in the sixth century. Its enormous suspended dome, over thirty metres wide and fifty-five metres high, seemed to float like ‘a tent of the heavens’. It was a marvel of engineering and the church was magnificent in its beauty. Golden mosaics twinkled, caught by the light streaming through the windows.1 Yet Constantinople was strewn with outstanding landmarks: hundreds of churches and monasteries, a vast hippodrome for chariot and horse racing, bathhouses, the Great Palace and even a zoo. One poem extolling Constantinople suggested that where there were once Seven Wonders of the world, there were now Seven Wonders of Constantinople.2

                  Such a bustling city needed to be provisioned. Markets were monitored and regulated by the office of the eparch, the governor of Constantinople, whose agents made sure that weights were standardised and maintained control of the consistency of produce being sold. Quality was also ensured by a system of guilds: grocers and fishmongers, butchers and chandlers, rope makers and saddlers, all had clear rules and codes of conduct as to what they were allowed to sell, and where they could sell it. There were even clear guidelines as to pricing, at least on staple goods, to control inflation. The result was a steady supply of fruit and vegetables, dairy products, meat and fish, alongside more exotic goods such as spices, wax, silverware and silk – the commodity for which Byzantium was most famous.3

                  One eleventh-century tourist marvelled at the cosmopolitan population of the city and at the magnificence of its buildings, also recording with wonder the religious processions which took place around the capital. He was fortunate enough to witness the miracle of the icon of the Virgin in the church of the Theotokos of Blakhernai, where the Virgin’s veil slowly rose to reveal her face, before falling back into place.4 Another visitor from the late eleventh century could also barely conceal his excitement: ‘Oh, what a noble and beautiful city is Constantinople! How many monasteries and palaces it contains, constructed with wonderful skill! How many remarkable things may be seen in the principal avenues and even in the lesser streets! It would be very tedious to enumerate the wealth that is there of every kind, of gold, of silver, of robes of many kinds, and of holy relics. Merchants constantly bring to the city by frequent voyages all necessities of man. About 20,000 eunuchs, I judge, are always living there.’5

                  The city had long been a magnet for traders and adventurers, seeking to find fame and fortune. There were many like Bolli Bollason, who journeyed to Constantinople from Iceland in the 1020s, to see and experience the capital for themselves. ‘I have always wanted to travel to southern lands one day,’ he told his peers, ‘for a man is thought to grow ignorant if he doesn’t ever travel beyond the country of his birth.’6 It was to Constantinople, many thousands of miles away, that he journeyed. When he reached Byzantium, Bolli joined the Varangian guard, a corps of mercenaries from Scandinavia, Russia and, by the eleventh century, the British Isles who formed the emperor’s bodyguard. ‘They fight like madmen, as if set on fire with anger’, wrote one eleventh-century writer, ‘they do not spare themselves and do not care about their wounds.’7 When Bolli eventually returned to Iceland, he made a striking appearance: ‘He had on the clothes of fur which the Garth-king [the Byzantine emperor] had given him, and on top of them a scarlet cape; and he had [an outstanding sword] with him, the hilt of which was brilliant with gold, and the grip woven with gold; he had a gilded helmet on his head, and a red shield on his flank, with a knight painted on it in gold. He had a dagger in his hand, as is the custom in foreign lands. Wherever he went, women paid heed to nothing but gazing at Bolli and his grandeur.’8

                  Bolli was just one of many drawn to Constantinople. Harald Hardrada, later king of Norway, whose exploits appear in the Heimskringla, the cycle of sagas about the rulers of Norway, journeyed to Byzantium where he served on galleys, scouted for pirates in the Aegean, and took part in an attack on Sicily in the early 1040s. While in imperial service, he came up with an ingenious flying bomb, coating young birds with pine resin mixed with wax and sulphur before setting fire to them and dispatching them back to their nests inside the walls of the city he was besieging. Serving the great emperor of Constantinople, or Miklegarth – the old Norse name for the city – was exotic, exciting and awesome. It was both an honour and a rite of passage for many Scandinavians.9

                  Then there were men like Odo of Stigand, a young Norman who trained as a doctor and vet in Constantinople in the 1050s, picking up a smattering of several foreign languages in the process. His brother, Robert, also spent time in the capital, bringing gold, precious stones and relics of St Barbara with him when he eventually came home to Normandy.10 Knights with military experience were welcomed in Byzantium, with several rising to high positions in the imperial army. Some of the Anglo-Saxon leaders who fled England after the battle of Hastings in 1066 also found their way to Byzantium, looking for a new start in the wake of William’s conquest.11

                  By the end of the eleventh century, therefore, a great swathe of different nationalities could be found in Constantinople and elsewhere in the empire. Armenians, Syrians, Lombards, Englishmen, Hungarians, Franks, Jews, Arabs and Turks were all living, visiting and trading in the capital.12Amalfitan traders even carved out their own quarter in Constantinople;13 one became so favoured by the emperor that he was given the unusual privilege of having bronze doors cast in the imperial foundries to send back to Amalfi, where they hang to this day at the entrance to the cathedral of St Andrew.14 Byzantium was diverse, cosmopolitan, and well connected: trade networks and diplomatic links, as well as the connections of the immigrant population, meant that the empire was famous in the most distant corners of Europe.

                  The sharp increase in the number of foreigners visiting and settling in the city was due in part to a rapid acceleration in the economic prosperity of the empire following a series of major military successes by the great emperor-generals of the tenth century. Arab pirates who had interrupted maritime traffic in the Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean for centuries were finally dealt with, their attack bases systematically knocked out. The frontiers both in the Balkans and in the east were first stabilised and then rolled back by a succession of competent and ambitious military commanders, who heralded a golden age for the empire.

                  Major new projects were commissioned in Constantinople, including the magnificent complex of St George on Mangana, which included a hospital, homes for the aged and the poor, a sumptuous palace, and a monastic church where Constantine IX, the emperor who commissioned the works, was eventually buried. Schools of law and philosophy opened to cater to an increasingly socially mobile population. Traders and merchants grew wealthy and as a result found the doors of the senate opened to them. Private individuals began to use their disposable income to invest in land and precious objects. Men like Eustathios Boilas, a landowner in Cappadocia, were encouraged by the empire’s stability and prosperity to develop barren land that was ‘foul and unmanageable … inhabited by snakes, scorpions and wild beasts’ and lovingly transform it into vineyards and gardens, supplied by watermills and aqueducts.15

                  Around the middle of the eleventh century, however, Constantinople’s progress began to falter. Norman mercenaries, who had originally been recruited by central Italy’s city-states, began to realise that they could exploit the fractious competition between Amalfi, Salerno, Capua, Benevento and Naples. Within a matter of decades, they had used this rivalry effectively to build up their own power base, and by the mid-1050s the Normans were starting to challenge the Byzantine provinces of Apulia and Calabria. The empire found itself under pressure elsewhere too. Constantinople had long had to keep a careful watch over the steppe lands to the north of the Black Sea. For centuries, these tracts of land had been populated by nomads who were volatile and dangerous if not carefully dealt with. One of the most aggressive tribes was the Pechenegs, who excelled in raiding poorly defended targets. Based on the northern banks of the Danube, the Pechenegs now turned on Byzantium, intensifying their assaults from the 1040s onwards and causing havoc in the Balkans.

                  In the east the empire was threatened by the Turks’ spectacular rise to power. While they had been on the periphery of the caliphate of Baghdad at the start of the eleventh century, their military prowess became highly valued by rival factions in the Muslim world, and they soon involved themselves in the tangled politics of Baghdad itself. In 1055, one of the tribal leaders, Tughril Beg, became sultan – effectively the secular leader of Sunni Islam in the Middle East. And this was not the end of Turkish ambition. Even before becoming masters of Baghdad, bands of Turks had made their way westwards to the edges of Asia Minor and begun launching small-scale attacks into the subcontinent’s Byzantine interior.

                  The empire did not just struggle to respond to these threats: it failed to deal with them altogether. Southern Italy was left to its own devices and fell swiftly to the Normans, who turned their attention to attacking Muslim Sicily after capturing the southern Italian city of Bari in 1071. The Byzantines also did little to counter the Pechenegs, with the empire feebly resorting time and again to bribery, paying tribute in return for peace. There was at least some co-ordinated defence in the east, but only after major towns like Trebizond, Koloneia and Melitene had been raided. In 1067, after a band of Turks reached and sacked Kaisereia, desecrating the tomb of St Basil and carrying off the doors to the church, which were covered with gold, pearls and precious stones, the clamour for decisive action became overwhelming. All eyes turned to Romanos IV Diogenes, a general elevated to the throne after marrying the widow of the previous emperor.

                  Romanos set off on several expensive campaigns that achieved little. But then, in the summer of 1071, the emperor allowed himself to get drawn into battle near the important fort of Manzikert by Turkish forces which he believed to be modest in number and easy to defeat. They were in fact part of the main Turkish army, under the personal command of the sultan, Alp Arslan. Faulty intelligence, poor decision-making and bad leadership contributed to a defeat that was less significant from a military point of view, but humiliating in terms of prestige. Romanos IV himself was captured and, dishevelled and caked in the dust of battle, brought before the sultan, who initially refused to believe that the man being presented to him was really the emperor. The encounter, during which Alp Arslan behaved with conspicuous kindness and dignity before releasing Diogenes, was celebrated soon after by writers and poets, quickly becoming a defining event in Turkish history and identity.16

                  The campaign that ended at Manzikert in 1071 had been intended to reinforce Byzantium’s eastern frontier and protect the interior of Asia Minor from the debilitating and demoralising raids that scarred it. Its failure – and the lack of corrective action in its aftermath – led to a growing sense of panic. Many Byzantines abandoned the region, fleeing to Constantinople for fear of further Turkish raids. One was the future patriarch, Nicholas Grammatikos, who left Antioch-in-Pisidia to set up a new monastery in the capital; an archdeacon from Kaisereia made the same decision, gathering up the treasures from his church in Cappadocia to head for the safety of the capital.17


                  • #10
                    The influx of refugees put a strain on the resources of Constantinople. As it was, the pressure on the provinces had thrown the empire’s finances into disarray, sharply reducing the tax revenues. In addition, military operations like the Manzikert campaign, or more limited efforts against the Pechenegs, were costly. Increasing military commitments also meant that agricultural production fell as manpower was diverted from the fields by conscription, adding to the depopulation of the countryside as the rural population fled to the safety of the cities.

                    Attempts to deal with the mounting financial crisis were not successful. The government attempted to correct the fiscal imbalance by debasing the coinage – lowering the gold content while maintaining the same notional value. This might have helped had it been managed carefully, but by the 1070s, debasement was spiralling out of control, the precious-metal content being further degraded with almost every issue.18 Tax collection became rapacious and chronic inflation set in, with the price of wheat driven up by a factor of eighteen in the mid-1070s.19

                    Economic meltdown was accompanied by political chaos, as aristocrats rose in revolt against the government in protest at the rising demands being made of them and at the deteriorating situation within the empire. In the late 1070s, one leading magnate after another rebelled, plunging Byzantium into civil war. Although many of the most serious uprisings were eventually put down, the disruption they caused was profound. And the empire’s neighbours were quick to take advantage. Having made themselves masters of southern Italy, the Normans set about preparing an attack on Epirus, the gateway to the empire’s western provinces. In Croatia and Duklja, the ruling dynasties sought to realign themselves with Old Rome rather than Constantinople, contacting the Pope to ask that their leaders be recognised as sovereign rulers – an unequivocal challenge to Byzantine claims over this region.20

                    In Asia Minor, the empire’s crisis offered opportunities that were too good to miss. Bands of Turkish marauders continued to make forays deep into the region, meeting with little opposition. In 1080, for example, some reached as far west as Kyzikos, duly sacking the city, and plunging the emperor into deep despair.21 The lure of plunder was only one attraction that drew Turks into Byzantine territory. Another was the insatiable appetite of rebellious aristocrats for military support. Almost every rebel in this period employed Turkish auxiliaries, often after competitive auctions between rival factions for the same band of mercenaries.22 Byzantines seemed more than willing to make common cause with Turks in their squabbles with each other.23

                    By 1081, things could scarcely have been worse. The Balkans were in flames with Pecheneg raids and uprisings by local leaders who rejected imperial control over some of the most important towns of the region. A major Norman attack from southern Italy was also under way, led by Robert Guiscard, one of the most ruthless and successful military commanders of the early Middle Ages. Meanwhile, the Turks had reached the shore of the Bosphorus, the neighbouring regions completely exposed to their raids. ‘The Byzantines saw them living absolutely unafraid and unmolested in the little villages on the coast and in sacred buildings’, reported Anna Komnene. ‘The sight filled them with horror. They had no idea what to do.’24 The Roman Empire had once ruled from the straits of Gibraltar in the west to India in the east, from Britain in the north deep into Africa. Now little remained beyond the imperial capital itself.25 The Turks had ravaged Asia Minor, wrote Anna, destroying towns and staining the land with Christian blood. Those who were not gruesomely murdered or taken prisoner ‘hurried to seek refuge from impending disaster by hiding in caves, forests, mountains and hills’.26

                    With the eastern provinces seemingly lost to the Turks and the empire on its knees, Byzantium was in crisis long before imperial envoys reached Pope Urban at Piacenza to appeal for help against the Turkish threat. Why then, was a sudden, dramatic request for support sent from Constantinople in 1095 if Asia Minor had fallen nearly fifteen years earlier? The timing of this passionate plea for help and the Pope’s spectacular response were both politically driven. The Byzantine appeal was strategic; Urban’s response was motivated by self-interest and the desire to establish himself over his rivals in the Western Church. At the heart of the First Crusade, therefore, lies a knotty story of crisis and realpolitik emanating from Asia Minor. And behind the spark that ignited the expedition was the young man who emerged as the ruler of the Byzantine Empire exactly ten years after the disaster at Manzikert: Alexios Komnenos.

                    In the early 1080s, Constantinople desperately needed a man of action, who would reverse the decline of the empire. There were several self-appointed candidates to save New Rome: Nikephoros Bryennios, Nikephoros Basilakios, Nikephoros Botaneiates and Nikephoros Melissenos – all owing their first names, ‘the one who brings victory’, to a different age, when the empire could look forward to continued success and prosperity. None of these men, though, could provide the answer to Byzantium’s problems. Alexios Komnenos, however, inspired hope.

                    Alexios Komnenos came from a respected and well-connected family in Byzantium. There was also a dash of imperial purple in the blood, for Isaac Komnenos, Alexios’ uncle, had held the throne for two years in 1057–9 before being deposed by a group of disgruntled senior officers whose personal ambitions had not been sufficiently tended to. Although this background provided the Komnenos family with an imperial pedigree, few can have thought that the young man who, as one account reveals, begged to go on campaign against the Turks while barely old enough to shave, would end up ruling the empire for thirty-seven years and laying the cornerstone of a dynasty that would rule for more than a century.27

                    One person who did have this vision, however, was Alexios’ mother. A tough, determined woman, Anna Dalassene came from one of the empire’s leading families, many of whose members had served Byzantium in important positions in the civilian and military administrations. Anna had serious ambitions for her five sons. The eldest, Manuel, rose quickly through the ranks of the army to become a senior commander during the ill-fated reign of Romanos IV Diogenes, but was killed in battle. The rise of two of Anna’s other sons, Isaac and Alexios, was meteoric and nigh on unstoppable.

                    As Byzantium began to disintegrate, a vacuum opened up for ambitious young men who were able and loyal. The Komnenos brothers were the prime beneficiaries, with Isaac, the older of the two, appointed first to command the army of the eastern provinces and then governor of the city of Antioch, while Alexios was repeatedly promoted for his outstanding success defeating rebels in central Asia Minor and the western Balkans in the 1070s.

                    By the end of the decade, speculation mounted in Constantinople about the brothers’ ambitions, spurred by their successful cultivation of both the emperor Nikephoros III and of his wife, the empress Maria. Gossip swirled through the capital about Alexios’ relationship with the latter, described as a striking woman, ‘very tall, like a cypress tree; her skin was snow white, her face oval, her complexion wholly reminiscent of a spring flower or a rose’.28 The emperor, meanwhile, a doddery old man with a keen eye for fashion, was enthralled by the clothes made from fine materials which Isaac Komnenos brought him from Syria.29

                    Speculation about the brothers’ ambitions proved correct. Around the end of 1080, they decided that the time had come to try to take the throne for themselves, prompted by rival figures at court who began openly briefing against them. They were spurred on too by the moves of other leading aristocrats like Nikephoros Melissenos, who had already minted coins depicting himself as ruler and produced a seal that bore the uncompromising legend: ‘Nikephoros Melissenos, emperor of the Romans’.30 Such was Melissenos’ progress that the emperor considered formally naming him as his heir in a bid to appease him.31

                    Isaac and Alexios realised that they had to move quickly. Although he was the younger of the two, it was agreed that Alexios should take the throne if the coup was successful, his marriage to a member of the powerful Doukas family proving vital in winning the support of one of the most powerful families in Byzantium. The decisive moment came when news reached Constantinople that a major Norman attack had begun on the empire’s western flank at Epirus. For once, the emperor reacted decisively, entrusting a major force to his leading commander – Alexios Komnenos. Yet having reached Thrace with his army, the young general did what all Roman rulers feared most: he turned round to march back on the capital.32

                    The city’s defences were formidable; there was no real prospect that the Komnenoi would be able to take it by storm. Contact was therefore made with the German mercenary contingent that was protecting the Kharisios gate, one of the main entry points on the western side of the city. After terms had been agreed with its commander, the huge wooden doors were swung open and the Komnenoi and their supporters surged into the city.33 Alexios and his men advanced swiftly through the city as support for the emperor melted away. Met with only limited opposition, they looted wildly. Even Anna Komnene could not hide her horror at the scenes which accompanied the entry of her father’s supporters: ‘No writer, however earnest could possibly do justice to the terrors by which the city was enveloped in those days. Churches, sanctuaries, property both public and private were all victims of universal pillage, while the ears of its citizens were deafened by cries and shouts raised on every side. An onlooker might well have thought an earthquake was taking place.’34

                    Violence was directed particularly at the capital’s elites. Senators were pulled from their horses; some were stripped naked and left humiliated in the street.35 The emperor himself yielded meekly as he slunk away from the palace, his imperial vestments stolen by courtiers who put them on and mocked him.36 Captured and handed over to the Komnenoi, Nikephoros was placed in a monastery where he is reported to have taken to the life of prayer and contemplation – although he was not impressed by the strict vegetarian regime on offer.37

                    Soon after taking control of the city, Alexios I Komnenos was crowned emperor of the Romans in the Great Church of St Sophia in Constantinople. The elaborate coronation ceremony would have followed the rituals laid out in a tenth-century text, with Alexios arriving at Hagia Sophia, changing into the imperial robes and then entering the church with the patriarch. After being prayed for and acclaimed with the chant ‘O great emperor and autocrat! May you reign for many years!’, Alexios would have been crowned, before dignitaries came forward one by one to kiss the new sovereign’s knees.38

                    To consolidate his position, the new emperor quickly appointed allies to key posts in the empire. A new commander-in-chief of the western armies was named, and a new governor was appointed for the town of Dyrrakhion, the focus of the ongoing Norman attack.39 The support of Nikephoros Melissenos was diplomatically ensured by giving him a prominent role, as well as the gift of the tax revenues of Thessaloniki, one of the largest towns in the empire. Isaac Komnenos, meanwhile, was appointed to a newly created rank, placing him second to the emperor in the hierarchy of government. Many members of the new emperor’s immediate family also received promotions, status and rewards to mark them out as part of the new establishment.40 This creation of a new tier of loyalists provided Alexios with the secure power base he needed to contend with external threats, as well as with the empire’s economic meltdown.

                    From the outset, Alexios took control of military affairs himself, rather than leaving them in the hands of subordinates, as most of his predecessors had done. A few months after taking the throne he personally led an army to Epirus to confront the Normans, who promptly inflicted a crushing defeat on Alexios and his forces at Dyrrakhion in October 1081. Over the next two years, as the Normans penetrated deep into Macedonia and Thessaly, the emperor himself commanded the army in a series of exhaustive operations which finally resulted in the withdrawal of the invading army back to Italy. In 1084, when the Normans launched a second invasion on the empire’s western flank, it was Alexios again who set out from Constantinople in person to repel the attack – and on this occasion with rather more success. After supplies and communications were cut, the Normans sustained heavy casualties from starvation and disease and were slowly strangled into submission. ‘Greece, freed of its enemies, was liberated and rejoiced fully’, acknowledged one Norman contemporary.41

                    Alexios’ success was a powerful vindication for the young usurper. He had seized the throne promising a new future for the empire, and although his efforts against the Normans were not without regular setbacks, he had done something that the Muslims of Sicily and King Harold of England had failed to achieve: successfully resist a large-scale Norman invasion.


                    • #11
                      The new emperor now turned his attention to the Pechenegs, whose raids were continuing unabated in spite of major Byzantine successes achieved by one of Alexios’ new appointees, in 1083. ‘I am convinced’, wrote the commander in question after one such victory, ‘that even for many years after my death the miraculous act of Almighty God which happened will not be forgotten.’42 He was wrong: the Pechenegs remained a huge problem in the 1080s, ravaging Byzantine territory on a regular basis. ‘Their attack is like lightning’, wrote one contemporary, ‘their retreat both slow and swift – slow because of the weight of booty they are carrying, swift because of the speed of their flight … They leave no trace at all for those pursuing them. Even if a bridge was built across the Danube, they would still not be caught.’43

                      Alexios repeatedly led the army out to meet the waves of invasion, to little effect. By the winter of 1090, the threat had become critical, with a vast body of Pecheneg nomads invading the empire and reaching southern Thrace with the intention of settling permanently in the rich pastureland around the mouth of the river Ainos – and dangerously close to Constantinople. The emperor gathered troops from wherever he could, set camp at the foot of a hill named Lebounion, and prepared for battle.

                      The engagement that followed at the end of April 1091 provided one of the most startling military victories in Byzantine history: ‘It was an extraordinary spectacle’, wrote Anna Komnene. ‘A whole people, numbered not in these tens of thousands but in countless multitudes, with their women and children was utterly wiped out on that day. It was the twenty-ninth of April, a Tuesday. Hence the ditty chanted by the Byzantines: “All because of one day the [Pechenegs] never saw the month of May.”’44 To all intents and purposes, the Pechenegs were annihilated. Many survivors of the battle were executed shortly afterwards; the remainder were dispersed across the Balkans. They would never again pose a threat to the empire.45

                      Alexios’ first decade in power thus appears to have been remarkably successful. The threat of two aggressive and dangerous neighbours had been seen off, in the case of the Pechenegs permanently. The emperor had installed himself securely on the throne, surrounding himself with reliable family members whose interests were closely aligned with his own. There was little evidence, furthermore, of internal opposition to his rule – no challenges from those who had been removed from power in 1081, or other rivals to the throne. This was undoubtedly the result of the measures Alexios put in place to control the aristocracy. Leading rivals were brought on campaign by the emperor, keeping them close to him and away from Constantinople.46 During Alexios’ absence Isaac was left behind in the capital with an uncompromising brief to deal with any criticism of the new ruling family.47 Yet despite this apparent nervousness about opposition, it seemed that Alexios was widely welcomed as emperor, his leadership a breath of fresh air to an empire that had become stale.

                      The emperor’s style of rule was certainly not self-indulgent, unlike that of some of his predecessors who were more concerned with what they wore or what they ate: Constantine VIII (1025–8), for example, had spent little time dealing with matters of state, instead setting himself up in the imperial kitchens where he experimented endlessly with flavours and colours.48 By contrast, Alexios was a diffident character with a soldier’s habits, who had simple tastes and disavowed life’s luxuries. Severe and serious, he also had no time for small talk and kept his own counsel.49 He was a man who spurned mirrors, reported his son-in-law, Nikephoros Bryennios, because he believed that ‘for a man and a warrior, arms and simplicity and purity of way of life are adornment’.50 He had similarly puritan views when it came to history writing. Alexios was unimpressed that his eldest daughter wanted to write an account of his reign, encouraging her instead to compose elegies and dirges. His response to his wife, when he learned that she wanted to commission an account of his life for future generations, was even more blunt: ‘It would be better, he said, to grieve for him and deplore his misfortunes.’51

                      Alexios was a devout man, whose main relaxation came from studying the Bible. He would often sit late into the night reading the Scriptures in silence alongside his wife, who had similar inclinations.52 He shared such piety with other members of his family; his brother Isaac was much admired by the clergy for his religious zeal.53 And his mother too was similarly devout. The founder of a beautifully appointed church and monastery overlooking the Golden Horn in the capital, she was a strong supporter of monks and clerics throughout the empire, often intervening on their behalf and arranging tax exemptions. Her seal testified to her as not just the mother of the emperor, but also as a nun. The emperor’s daughter reported that it was Anna Dalassene who had ‘deeply implanted the fear of the Lord’ into her son’s soul when he was a boy.54

                      With Alexios’ rule, Byzantium entered a period of sombre asceticism. Soon after taking power in 1081, the emperor resolved to wear a hair shirt and to sleep on a stone floor to atone for the behaviour of his troops during the coup. He apologised to the clergy the following year for taking unused church treasures to help fund efforts against the Normans, vowing never to do so again. Within the imperial palace, the ‘utter depravity’ of previous generations was replaced by solemn singing of sacred hymns and strictly regimented mealtimes.55

                      In addition, Alexios was at pains to impose his orthodox religious views. From the start of his reign, stern action was taken against those with opinions and beliefs that were deemed heretic, with the sovereign himself regularly presiding over trials and administering punishment to those found guilty. Championing the interests of the church was of course an entirely sensible policy, especially for a usurper who had seized the throne by force. But in Alexios’ case, it was sincere.

                      Yet the emperor had no trouble taking on senior members of the clergy: in his first three years on the throne, he engineered the replacement of not one but two patriarchs of Constantinople, until the appointment of Nicholas III Grammatikos provided him with a man willing to co-operate with him. Other leading clerics were also dealt with forcefully, such as the bishop of Chalcedon, who was tried and exiled after criticising the emperor and his policies. Furthermore, as we have seen, Alexios was the driving force behind the rapprochement with Rome at the end of the 1080s, overseeing a meeting of the synod in the capital, and all but insisting on reconciliation with the papacy.

                      The force of Alexios’ character fashioned the empire. Under his leadership, there was a return to the military values that had characterised the tenth century, a time when emperors were generals, and the army was the cornerstone of Byzantium. Alexios himself was most comfortable in the outfit of a soldier, rather than the lavish vestments of the emperor, and he preferred a small group of intimates over the elaborate ceremonials that characterised the court in Constantinople.56

                      Alexios abandoned the complicated hierarchy that dictated who sat where while dining in the palace, establishing an altogether more modest and basic regime. The emperor frequently invited the least fortunate in society to share his table, dining with epileptics and reportedly being so eager to help them that he himself forgot to eat.57 Even a contemporary who was otherwise almost uniformly hostile to Alexios commented that his attitude to the poor was both unusual and commendable. In addition, he ‘never drank, and could not be accused of being a glutton’.58 Rather than delegating affairs to bureaucrats, he made himself available to discuss matters of concern with his subjects, and even with foreigners; he would meet with anyone who wanted to see him personally, often staying up late into the night to do so.59

                      While the close control Alexios maintained over Byzantium was impressive, it was also suffocating. There was violent opposition to his style of leadership on the eve of the Crusade and, as we will see, this played a central role in the emperor’s appeals to the papacy. The heavy emphasis on military affairs was oppressive and drained the empire’s resources; art, architecture and literature stagnated during Alexios’ reign. What little was produced in terms of visual culture was austere and sombre: a mural painted at the Great Palace of Blakhernai depicted the emperor at the time of the Last Judgement acting as a representative of Christ.60 This was an immensely revealing representation of how Alexios saw himself: God’s faithful servant at a time of darkness.

                      Apart from his coinage, we have only two images of the emperor, but one can get a sense of the impression Alexios made from Anna’s idealised description of him in the Alexiad. He struck an imposing figure, even if he spoke with a lisp: ‘when one saw the grim flash of his eyes as he sat down on the imperial throne, he reminded one of a fiery whirlwind, so overwhelming was the radiance that emanated from his bearing and his very presence. His dark eyebrows were curved, and beneath them the gaze of his eyes was both terrible and kind. A quick glance … [would] inspire in the beholder both dread and confidence. His broad shoulders, muscular arms and deep chest, all on a heroic scale, invariably commanded the wonder and delight of the people. He radiated beauty and grace and dignity and an unapproachable majesty.’61

                      This was the man who prompted the First Crusade, a seminal moment in the history and development of the medieval world. Yet with the repulse of the Normans and the comprehensive defeat of the Pechenegs, the fortunes of the Byzantine Empire appeared to be well on the mend. Why, then, by 1095, did Byzantium require outside help to take on the Turks?


                      • #12
                        CHAPTER 3 Stability in the East
                        THE BYZANTINE EMPIRE was under great pressure when Alexios took the throne – threatened by the incursions of aggressive neighbours, weakened by a collapsing economy, and riven with political infighting. Looking back through the distorting prism of the First Crusade, it would seem natural to assume that the greatest of these dangers came from hostile Turkish expansion in the east. This was certainly the impression created by Anna Komnene; her testimony even suggested that Asia Minor had been essentially lost to the Turks before Alexios came to power. In fact, Asia Minor was relatively stable in the 1080s; indeed, the relationship between Byzantium and the Turks in the first part of Alexios’ reign was generally robust and pragmatically positive. It was only in the early 1090s, in the years immediately before the beginning of the First Crusade, that there was a dramatic deterioration of Byzantium’s position in the east. Conflict with the Muslim world, in other words, was by no means inevitable; it appears that the breakdown in relations between Christians and Muslims at the end of the eleventh century was the result of a spiralling political and military process, not the unavoidable conflict between two opposing cultures. It was, though, in the interests of Anna Komnene to create the opposite impression; and it is an impression that has lasted down through the centuries.

                        At the start of his reign the new emperor’s attentions were focused squarely on the Normans and the Pechenegs. The Byzantine position in Asia Minor, on the other hand, was fairly resilient: there were many locations which had mounted stern resistance against the Turks in the decade following the battle of Manzikert, and they continued to hold out effectively after Alexios took the throne. In many cases, the defiance was the result of effective local leadership, rather than of the actions of Constantinople. The area around Trebizond on the north coast of Asia Minor, for example, was secured by Theodore Gabras, a scion of one of the town’s most prominent families. Such was the ferocity of Gabras’ defence of the surrounding region that his exploits and bravery were remembered with admiration by the Turks more than a hundred years later in a lyrical poem about their conquest of Asia Minor.1 A substantial area around Amaseia, meanwhile, had been held extremely effectively in the 1070s by Roussel Balliol, a Norman initially in imperial service before declaring himself independent of Byzantium, frustrated by the lack of support he was being given by the government and inspired by the strong support of the local population which lionised him for the protection he provided.2

                        Commanders were holding out far into the eastern extremities of Anatolia, even into the Caucasus. Three sons of Mandales, ‘Roman magnates’ according to a Caucasian chronicler, were occupying strong-points in the region of Kaisereia in 1080–1, presumably on behalf of the empire, rather than opportunistically for themselves.3 Basil Apokapes held the important town of Edessa before Alexios’ usurpation and after, to judge from lead seals issued in his name.4 The appointment of a new governor of Mesopotamia by Alexios’ predecessor in 1078 likewise provides an indication that there were significant Byzantine interests worth protecting hundreds of miles east of Constantinople.5

                        Some Byzantine commanders were actually flourishing in the eastern provinces – most notably Philaretos Braakhamios, a talented general whose career had suffered a serious setback after refusing to support Romanos IV Diogenes’ successor, Michael VII Doukas, when he became emperor in 1071. As the empire imploded with one revolt after another in the 1070s, Philaretos wrested control of many towns, forts and territories and built up a substantial power base in the process. He continued to prosper after Alexios became emperor, and by the early 1080s held the important cities of Marash and Melitene as well as much of Cilicia, before becoming master of Edessa in 1083.6

                        The Alexiad’s sweeping – and damning – account of the situation in the east has shaped modern opinions about the situation in Asia Minor at the time of Alexios’ seizure of power. A common consensus has emerged that the eastern provinces were overrun by the Turks in the early 1080s. There is also wide agreement, likewise based on Anna Komnene’s account, that there was a significant Byzantine recovery on the eve of the First Crusade which, taken together with the death of the sultan of Baghdad in 1092, provided an inviting and enviable opening for the empire to exploit in Asia Minor.7 Yet commentary provided by the Alexiad needs to be treated cautiously for the author’s aim in stressing the parlous state of the empire in 1081 was to underline Alexios’ achievements, to emphasise that he saved Byzantium from the very brink of disaster. There was a darker motivation as well: to absolve the emperor of blame for a series of major disasters which occurred not before he took the throne, but afterwards – and which are cleverly concealed in Anna’s history.

                        Yet even the Alexiad inadvertently reveals the strength of the empire’s position in 1081. As the new emperor prepared to deal with the Norman invasion of Epirus he put together as large an army as he could, summoning men from all over the empire to gather in Constantinople. This included the withdrawal of men stationed in Asia Minor: Alexios ‘realised that he must quickly recall all the toparkhes [senior officers] in the east, men who as governors of forts or towns were bravely resisting the Turks’. At once, the emperor gave orders that these commanders, in provinces like Paphlagonia and Cappadocia, secure their respective regions, ‘leaving for that purpose enough soldiers, but with the rest they were to come to Constantinople, bringing with them as many able-bodied recruits as they could find’.8 There were officers in other regions in Asia Minor as well who were also holding out against the Turks, and they too were ordered to send men to a new emperor preoccupied with preparing a large army to deal with the attack by the Normans.9This freeing-up of manpower in Asia Minor suggests that the Byzantine hold over the region was fairly robust.

                        In fact, there is little to suggest that the Turks posed a major problem in this period. There were bands of raiders who were a menace, attacking soft targets like Kyzikos, which were poorly defended and offered little resistance.10 But even the presence of such opportunistic groups was not necessarily unwelcome: when one aristocrat came across a party of Turks while on his way to join Alexios and Isaac Komnenos during their rebellion, he did not engage them in combat but persuaded them to join him as mercenaries.11

                        Other evidence too presents a picture that is dramatically different to the idea that the Byzantine east had collapsed by the time of Alexios’ usurpation. For example, Attaleia, an important trading post and naval base on the south coast of Asia Minor, was raised in status to an archbishopric in the early 1080s, a sign that the town was not only still in Byzantine hands but growing in importance.12 Archaeological finds reveal the existence of an extensive cast of bishops, judges and officials holding positions in many provinces and towns in Asia Minor immediately before Alexios came to the throne as well as afterwards, which demonstrates that the damage done by the Turks to the provincial administration around this time was hardly extensive.13

                        In fact, the situation in the east improved significantly after Alexios took power, with the return of stability to much of Asia Minor during the first half of the 1080s. This was a major achievement, especially in view of the fact that Alexios’ regime had been so fragile at the outset: there had been concerns about the loyalty of his own troops during the entry to Constantinople in 1081, while some of his most prominent supporters considered abandoning him soon after. His failure to have his wife, Eirene, crowned empress alongside him provoked a violent reaction from her powerful family, who bristled at Alexios’ attempt to show himself to be independent. Their menacing warnings had the desired effect: Eirene was crowned a week later.14 In addition, Constantinople’s high-ranking clergy had been demanding a public apology – as well as penance – from Alexios for the behaviour of his men after they rampaged through the capital during his coup.15 And as we have seen, the western flank of the Byzantine Empire was in chaos in the early 1080s with a major Norman invasion of Epirus under way and Pecheneg raids devastating the Balkans in the north.

                        When it came to Asia Minor the emperor was less concerned with the Turks than with the more significant problem posed by this region in the previous decade: uprisings by Byzantine aristocrats. The eastern provinces were home to most of the major landowners in Byzantium, and had proved a fertile breeding ground for insurrection since the battle of Manzikert. The new emperor was anxious that another challenge did not emerge while he was away from Constantinople to fight Normans and Pechenegs. In the very first weeks of his reign, therefore, Alexios turned his attention to the east. According to the Alexiad, he sent an expedition into Bithynia to drive back the Turks, personally issuing detailed instructions which included advice on how to pull oars through the water silently to retain the element of surprise and how to tell which rocky inlets the enemy might be hiding in, ready for ambush.16

                        To ensure the stability of this region, Alexios turned to a man whom he had dealt with before. Anxious not to entrust too much military power to a Byzantine aristocrat – mindful of the fact that he had himself wheeled the imperial army back on the capital when given similar responsibilities – Alexios sought to reach an agreement with an ally with a rather different profile. Sulayman was a Turkish chieftain who had made his way into Asia Minor in the 1070s in search of opportunity and fortune. He quickly found both, being hired by Constantinople to fight against rebel aristocrats on several occasions and being richly rewarded in the process.17 Alexios first co-operated with him when the Turkish warlord sent men to help him put down an attempted coup in the western Balkans shortly before his own successful revolt. Turkish auxiliaries proved loyal, brave and highly effective, playing a decisive part in putting down rebellions against the emperor and even being responsible for capturing their leaders.18

                        The fact that Alexios relied on a Turk was, if anything, a positive advantage to the new ruler who was not secure in his position. Choosing Sulayman, someone who was not part of the Byzantine elite, to become the key military figure in Asia Minor was not without logic – even if it was unusual. But then Alexios was much more open-minded than his peers when it came to outsiders. Byzantines generally took a dim view of foreigners, regardless of where they came from, perceiving them as useful mercenaries, but also as uncouth, driven by lowly passions and motivated by money. This was not how Alexios Komnenos saw things. As he showed on countless occasions during his reign, Alexios was more than happy to entrust sensitive tasks to foreigners living in Byzantium. Indeed, one writer commented that the emperor liked nothing better than being surrounded by ‘barbarians from captivity’.19 It was a reputation that spread across Europe and was recorded as far away as Normandy.20 Alexios felt comfortable with such people, men like him who were from military backgrounds and had come to Constantinople to find service. Ethnicity and religion were of little importance to him, perhaps the result of being brought up alongside Tatikios, the son of a Turk captured by his father, and who later became the emperor’s most trusted confidant.21

                        After limited operations in Bithynia, therefore, Alexios approached Sulayman in the summer of 1081 and came to an agreement with him. Lavish gifts were presented by the emperor in return for setting a boundary at the river Drakon beyond which the Turks were not allowed to encroach. Sulayman was effectively appointed as the emperor’s representative in western Asia Minor, with the remit not only to prevent incursions of his own men, but of all Turks in this region.22 Additionally, Alexios received a commitment that military assistance would be provided as, where and when it was needed. When the emperor found himself overstretched near Larissa in 1083, struggling to relieve a Norman siege of the town, ‘he called on [Sulayman] to supply forces with leaders of long experience. The request was answered without delay: 7,000 men were sent along with highly skilled officers.’23 Turkish auxiliaries who fought alongside him against the Normans on other occasions in the early 1080s may likewise have been supplied by Sulayman.24

                        Alexios gained much from the agreement. It left him free to deal with the troubles in the western provinces being caused by Normans and Pechenegs. It also provided him with the security of knowing that he had not inadvertently provided a platform from which an ambitious Byzantine aristocrat might mount a challenge against his rule. Best of all, however, was the fact that Sulayman proved to be an outstanding ally.

                        For one thing, the truce agreed in 1081 was extremely effective. Turkish raids on Byzantine territory were brought to an immediate end, with the peace agreement diligently enforced by Sulayman. As a message from the sultan of Baghdad to the emperor reveals, the treaty concluded between Alexios and Sulayman remained intact until at least the middle of 1085 and possibly later still.25 It provided the basis for stability in Asia Minor at a time when the empire was elsewhere teetering on the brink of collapse. Indeed, it appears that the agreement brought further benefits to the emperor that were not limited to western Asia Minor alone. A chronicler from the Caucasus noted that soon after terms were reached, the ‘entire country of Cilicia’ came under the control of ‘a certain emir, Sulayman, son of Kutlumush’.26 To judge from the comments of another author, writing in Syriac, this expansion of Sulayman’s power was advantageous to Byzantium. ‘In the year 475 [AD 1082]’, he wrote, ‘Sulayman departed from the territory of the Rhomaye [Byzantium] and went and captured the cities on the sea coast, namely Antarados and Tarsos.’27 The nuance here is easy to miss: Sulayman was not attacking targets that were held by Byzantines; he was recovering towns which had fallen to the Turks. In other words, through the treaty concluded in 1081 Sulayman effectively became Alexios’ agent, securing strategically important locations in Asia Minor as the emperor’s representative.


                        • #13
                          Although the emperor’s reliance on the Turks was inspired, it was not wholly unprecedented from the wider perspective of Byzantine foreign policy. As one tenth-century manual on the craft of diplomacy makes clear, setting neighbours off against one another and hiring warlords to attack unruly enemies was an accepted way of establishing and maintaining a favourable balance with the peoples outside the empire.28 Alexios’ use of Sulayman was bold; but it was not revolutionary.

                          There was, however, a price to pay: Nicaea. One of the most important towns in Asia Minor, Nicaea was enviably situated, defended by vast walls and fortifications, with a lake to the west side offering additional protection, as well as its own independent water supply. Its location made it the gateway to the rich river valleys of Lycia and Phrygia and the lush western and southern coasts, as well as into the Anatolian plateau. It was a vital node through which all communication flowed between Constantinople and the Byzantine east.

                          The circumstances of Nicaea’s occupation by the Turks are murky. It is normally assumed that the town was lost during the failed uprising of Nikephoros Melissenos, which was contemporaneous with Alexios’ own revolt against his predecessor in 1081. A member of one of Asia Minor’s leading families, Melissenos won sweeping support as he moved towards Constantinople: ‘The inhabitants of the towns recognised him as though he were emperor of the Romans and surrendered to him’, wrote one author several decades later. ‘He in turn placed them in the care of the Turks, with the result that all the towns of Asia, Phrygia and Galatia quickly came under the sway of the Turks; [Melissenos] then took Nicaea in Bithynia with a sizeable army, and from that location sought to take the empire of the Romans.’29 It therefore seems that Melissenos passed Nicaea – as well as many other towns of Asia Minor – into Turkish hands. Melissenos made a convenient scapegoat, however, not least since he was to cause significant problems for Alexios later in his reign and would live out the rest of his life exiled in a monastery.30 The blame attached to him is rather unconvincing: pinned too neatly by Alexios’ son-in-law, Nikephoros Bryennios, whose history was commissioned by the emperor’s wife.31

                          In fact, the more natural and logical explanation for the handover of Nicaea lies in the agreement reached between Sulayman and Alexios in 1081. Just as a new governor was sent out to Dyrrakhion after Alexios took power, therefore, the appointment of someone who could be trusted as the emperor’s representative in Nicaea – and would not challenge for the throne – was an important step. The fact that a Byzantine was not immediately dispatched to the town after Alexios’ usurpation suggests that other arrangements had been made to secure Nicaea – that is, to place it in the hands of Sulayman. It is not surprising that some accounts refer to the Turk as the governor of Nicaea.32

                          The decision to entrust Sulayman with Nicaea became a sensitive issue, though not because this policy backfired in the short term. The problem was that by the start of the 1090s Sulayman was dead and his successor Abu’l-Kasim proved to be a different proposition entirely. As a result, obscuring how and when Nicaea came to be occupied by the Turks became an important part of protecting the emperor’s reputation. Yet the fact that the loss of Nicaea can be traced back to none other than the emperor Alexios I Komnenos completely undermines the Alexiad’s careful and repeated assertions that all of Asia Minor had been lost before Alexios took power.

                          The attempt to suppress the truth was made easier by the fact that although many histories were written in Byzantium in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, with only two exceptions, they either end at the point of Alexios’ seizure of power or begin with the reign of his son and heir, John II.33Even after his death, it was difficult to write about Alexios, and for the most part, historians did not try. This stemmed in large part from deliberate efforts by the Komnenos family to control the image and reputation of the emperor as the founder of the dynasty.34

                          Nevertheless, Alexios’ role could not be completely disguised, at least to well-informed westerners. The chronicler Albert of Aachen knew that Nicaea had been lost by Alexios, though he was not aware of the details; he was led to believe that it happened after the emperor had been tricked by the Turks.35 When Ekkehard of Aura was told that the emperor had surrendered the town to the Turks, he was appalled, accusing Alexios of committing a most disgusting crime in handing over this jewel of Christianity. Ekkehard had, though, misunderstood the situation: he thought that Alexios had given away Nicaea some time after 1097, when in reality the emperor had placed it in the hands of the Turks in 1081.36

                          However, it was not in Nicaea or western Asia Minor where things began to go wrong but much further east – in Antioch. The consequences were devastating. Like Nicaea, Antioch was a vital location in the eastern half of Byzantium: a town of great economic significance, strategic value and prestige whose church was overseen by a patriarch and whose governor was one of the highest-ranking officials within the empire.37 As with Nicaea, it was essential for Antioch to be controlled by a loyal lieutenant, someone who did not seek to take advantage of Alexios’ preoccupations elsewhere to plot against him. As a commander who had proved himself time and again on the eastern frontier, Philaretos Braakhamios seemed to fit the bill. But Philaretos was an erratic and difficult figure. He was an excellent general, wrote one Byzantine historian who knew him, but he was also an impossible man who would not take orders from anyone.38

                          Alexios worked hard to woo Philaretos at the start of his reign, awarding him numerous titles and responsibilities.39 But the emperor was not the only suitor: in the early 1080s, Philaretos also began to receive overtures from the Muslim world. His major fiefdom in eastern Asia attracted the attention of the Turks and Philaretos was eventually persuaded to abandon Byzantium and Christianity in around 1084 when he ‘decided to join them and offered himself for circumcision, according to their custom. His son violently opposed this ridiculous impulse, but his good advice went unheeded.’40 One author expressed his indignation rather more emphatically: ‘the impious and wicked chief Philaretos, who was the very offspring of Satan … a precursor of the abominable Antichrist, and possessed by a demonical and extremely monstrous character … began to war against the Christian faithful, for he was a superficial Christian’.41

                          For Alexios this was disastrous news. The prospect of Philaretos recognising the authority of the caliph and the sultan was worrying enough; the threat that, with Melitene, Edessa and Antioch under his control, he might also turn over important towns and provinces to the Turks provoked a serious crisis. Alexios reacted immediately, taking countermeasures to secure the towns and regions the rogue general controlled and transferring them into the hands of loyal supporters. A certain T’oros, or Theodore, whose court title of kouropalates indicates that he was a close retainer of the emperor, took control of Edessa.42 His father-in-law, Gabriel, did the same in Melitene, being named governor of the town.43 Castles, fortresses and other strong-points in this region were also occupied by commanders loyal to the emperor.44

                          Yet it was to Sulayman that Alexios turned to secure Antioch. According to one source, the Turk moved quickly on the city in 1085, travelling via a ‘secret route’ to avoid detection, presumably shown to him by Byzantine guides. When he reached the city, he entered it with little ado and took control of it, harming no one and treating the inhabitants conspicuously well: ‘Peace was re-established, everyone returning to his place unharmed.’45 Arabic sources likewise comment on the kindness Sulayman showed to Antioch’s inhabitants.46

                          The peaceful occupation of Antioch contrasts sharply with the experiences of western knights who tried to take the city just a few years later. Protected by fearsome natural and man-made defences, Antioch was all but impregnable. But Sulayman did not have to use force to take control: he was acting on behalf of the emperor and so the inhabitants of the city – the majority of them Greek-speaking Byzantines – were willing to let him in. The fact that Alexios seems to have made no attempt to counter either the threat of Philaretos’ defection by sending his own troops or stop Sulayman’s move on Antioch is revealing. This was another case of fruitful collaboration between the Turk and the Byzantine.

                          Later Arabic writers came to present Sulayman’s occupation in glorious terms. In the words of one poet: ‘You have conquered Byzantine Antioch which enmeshed Alexander in its toils/Your steeds have trampled her flanks, and, humbled,/The daughters of the pale face miscarry their unborn children.’47 However, this was little more than poetic licence, designed to show Antioch as having a Muslim overlord. In fact, after taking the city, Sulayman showed his intentions and his loyalties by immediately suspending the tribute which Philaretos had been paying a local Turkish warlord. When warned that it was dangerous to act against the authority of the sultan, Sulayman responded angrily that he remained obedient to the ruler of Baghdad. In territories subject to the sultan, he replied, there was no question that he was loyal; by implication, therefore, what he did in Nicaea and Antioch – cities belonging to Byzantium – had no bearing on his obligations to the sultan.48 Using the same logic, Sulayman set out from Antioch for Aleppo in the summer of 1085, which had been razed by the Byzantines a century earlier, demanding that its Turkish governor hand the city over to him. It was another town that Alexios was keen to recover.49

                          The emperor pinned too much hope on his ally, however. Local Turkish warlords soon recognised that Sulayman was overstretched, with limited resources to hold on to his new gains, let alone make new conquests. In the middle of 1085, shortly after Sulayman had taken Antioch, Tutush, the sultan’s belligerent half-brother, marched on the city and drew him into battle. There was some dispute among contemporaries as to whether Sulayman committed suicide when it became obvious his army had been routed or was killed by an arrow which struck him in the face. Whatever the facts, Antioch was now in Tutush’s hands.50

                          This was a major setback for Byzantium. It was also a disaster for Alexios. Focusing his attention on the threats to the western provinces in the early 1080s, the emperor had not campaigned once in Asia Minor, pinning his hopes on two dominant local figures, Sulayman and Philaretos. In a matter of weeks, this policy had unravelled catastrophically.

                          Things only got worse when reports were received in Constantinople that Abu’l-Kasim, the man whom Sulayman had left in charge of Nicaea, had launched a wave of raids on towns and villages in Bithynia. Other opportunistic Turks were also taking advantage of the situation to establish themselves in Asia Minor, seizing towns and fortresses which had previously been controlled by Sulayman.51 Byzantine authority in the east was on the point of collapse.


                          • #14

                            The emperor was not alone in his concern about the sudden changes to the status of Antioch and Nicaea. The sultan of Baghdad, Malik-Shah, also grew alarmed about the situation: the rise in power of local warlords such as Abu’l-Kasim and Tutush threatened to destabilise the Turkish world as much as the Byzantine.52 Like his father Alp Arslan, Malik-Shah was careful to maintain control over his western frontier, often leading expeditions to assert himself over unruly regions which were not of immediate strategic importance to Baghdad but nevertheless vital to the personal power of the sultan. The Turks knew for themselves how important it was to keep an eye on developments in these borderlands; only a few decades earlier they had lingered on the eastern periphery of the caliphate before taking it over completely.

                            Around the middle of 1086, therefore, Malik-Shah sent envoys to Alexios bearing a letter noting the problems in western Asia Minor. Abu’l-Kasim had failed to respect the agreement which the sultan had made with Sulayman and which had remained intact for several years: ‘I have heard, Emperor, of your troubles. I know that from the start of your reign you have met with many difficulties and that recently, after you had settled the Latin affairs [the Norman attacks of 1081–5], the [Pechenegs] were preparing to make war on you. The emir Abu’l-Kasim, too, having broken the treaty that Sulayman concluded with you, is ravaging Asia as far as Damalis itself … If it is your wish that Abu’l-Kasim should be driven from those districts [that he had attacked] and that Asia, together with Antioch, should be subject to you, send me your daughter as wife for the eldest of my sons. Thereafter nothing will stand in your way; it will be easy for you to accomplish everything with my aid, not only in the east, but even as far as Illyrikon and the entire west. Because of the forces I will send you, no one will resist you from now on.’53 Malik-Shah also promised he would force the Turks to withdraw from the coastal regions and give the emperor his full support to recover all locations that had been lost by the empire.54Anna Komnene reported that the emperor was bemused by the marriage proposal: he burst out laughing and then muttered that the Devil himself must have put this idea into Malik-Shah’s head. Nevertheless, Alexios did not dismiss it out of hand, sending a delegation to Baghdad to offer ‘vain hopes’ about a marriage tie.55

                            The Alexiad gives the impression that nothing came of negotiations. However, the discussions did in fact lead to a concrete agreement in the mid-1080s, as Anna Komnene herself reveals later in the text. Reporting on the emperor’s preparations for a major battle with the Pechenegs, Anna states that among the men sent to his aid were Turks from the east, dispatched by the sultan in accordance with a treaty that had been agreed previously.56

                            The outline terms of this treaty can be unscrambled from other passages in the Alexiad. The author reports that her father had the good fortune to woo a Turkish envoy, who defected to Byzantium and handed back to the emperor many towns in Asia Minor in the mid-1080s. Yet the story is too good to be true. It appears what actually happened was that Malik-Shah agreed to expel Turks who had taken control of towns on the coast of Asia Minor and ordered that these locations be restored to Byzantium, with the Turks withdrawing from Sinope on the Black Sea coast, for example, even leaving the town’s treasury behind untouched.57 As a result, all over the region towns were surrendered to Byzantium; this was the result of high-level diplomacy, and not, as Anna Komnene suggests, sleight of hand and cunning on the part of the emperor.

                            Malik-Shah was well compensated for his crucial help: magnificent gifts were brought to the sultan by Greek envoys in the mid-1080s.58 ‘The rulers of Byzantium brought him tribute’, reported an Arabic writer after the sultan’s death, noting that Malik-Shah’s name was renowned ‘from the borders of China to the limits of Syria, and from the remotest lands of Islam in the north to the confines of Yemen’.59 This hints at a clear demarcation of interest: while Asia Minor belonged to the Byzantine sphere of influence, areas further east were subject to the Turkish sultan.

                            The sultan’s warnings to local emirs in Anatolia were followed up by aggressive action to impose his direct authority over warlords on the periphery of the Turkish world. A major expedition was dispatched deep into Asia Minor against Nicaea and its governor Abu’l-Kasim, whose raids on Byzantine territory had so troubled Alexios.60 Malik-Shah also set out on campaign in person, marching into the Caucasus before turning south into Syria where he took Aleppo. After Antioch had surrendered to him, the sultan went down to the Mediterranean shore, dismounted and stepped into the sea, plunging his sword three times into the water with the words: ‘Lo, God has allowed me to rule over the lands from the Persian Sea to this sea.’61

                            The sultan’s capture of Antioch was likely the price to pay for his co-operation against Abu’l-Kasim and for the restoration of towns in Asia Minor. It is striking that Malik-Shah was welcomed by the Christian populations in many of the places he passed through at this time who saw his involvement in the region as a prerequisite for stability, acting as a restraint on local Turkish leaders. The sultan met with no resistance in the Caucasus, for example, where the grace and ‘fatherly affection’ with which he treated the local Christians did much to allay fears of what the direct overlordship of Baghdad might entail.62 It helped too that Malik-Shah had a reputation for tolerance towards Christianity: around the start of 1074, soon after he became sultan in succession to his father, for example, he had sent a delegation to Constantinople with detailed enquiries about Christian doctrine, belief and practice.63 In addition, during his campaign of 1086–7 he seemed to one observer to have come to impose his authority over his own subjects, and not over Christians;64 although he entered Edessa and Melitene, he neither installed his own governors nor removed those who were holding the towns on behalf of the emperor.65

                            The emperor also took military action in 1086–7, re-establishing his authority over locations in the regions that did not surrender according to the sultan’s instructions. Attacks emanating from Nicaea were brought to a stop following operations against Abu’l-Kasim. ‘The raids were checked’, noted Anna Komnene, ‘and [Abu’l-Kasim] was constrained to seek terms of peace.’66 Imperial troops were dispatched to recover Kyzikos and Apollonias and other locations in western Asia Minor that had been targeted by local Turkish leaders.67 Kyzikos, which had fallen on the eve of Alexios’ coup, was restored to imperial control around the middle of 1086 and placed under the command of Constantine Humbertopoulos, one of the emperor’s closest supporters, until he was recalled to deal with yet another wave of Pecheneg attacks.68

                            Other locations were recovered after the promise of substantial rewards persuaded some Turkish commanders to take service with the emperor and to convert to Christianity.69 The conversions were welcomed by clerics in Constantinople, who praised Alexios for his evangelism and his advancement of the true faith.70 The emperor was happy to take the credit, but rather than being motivated by religious fervour, he was acting in line with classic diplomacy: offering imperial titles and financial rewards to leading Turks was an effective way of showing the benefits of co-operation with Byzantium. They were a small price to pay for recovering towns and regions that had been lost.

                            Consequently, in a speech by a senior cleric delivered in the presence of the emperor and his closest advisers on 6 January 1088, the Feast of Epiphany, little mention was made of affairs in the east. In contrast to the western provinces which continued to suffer from the ravagings of the Pechenegs, this was no longer a region of major concern. After dwelling on the threat posed by the steppe nomads and commending Alexios on a peace treaty which had been concluded with the nomads shortly beforehand, Theophylact of Ohrid had nothing of note to say about Asia Minor. Alexios, pronounced the cleric, was fortunate to enjoy excellent relations with the Turks and above all with the sultan. Such was Malik-Shah’s admiration for the emperor that he raised a toast in his honour whenever he heard mention of the emperor’s name. Reports of the emperor’s courage and glory, noted Theophylact approvingly, resounded throughout the world.71

                            This upbeat assessment of 1088 could not contrast more sharply with the bleak view of the empire’s predicament in 1081 provided by Anna Komnene and long accepted by modern commentators. Stability, not collapse, marked the eastern provinces, even if occasional challenges required decisive action. The situation had been brought under control by the Byzantines – and there would have been no need to appeal to the Pope for help from abroad. In the late 1080s, there was no need for a Crusade.


                            • #15
                              CHAPTER 4 The Collapse of Asia Minor
                              APART FROM NICAEA itself where Abu’l-Kasim still held power, Byzantium retained control of many prime parts of the eastern provinces in the late 1080s, above all the crucial coastal regions, the fertile river valleys and the islands of the Aegean – that is to say the strategically sensitive locations that were critical for the empire’s trade and communication networks. Evidence that many of these areas were thriving under Byzantine control can be found in the intense lobbying of the emperor’s mother by monks on islands such as Leros and Patmos in 1088 and 1089. The monks were planning a considerable building programme and were hoping to secure valuable tax exemptions.1

                              The situation soon changed drastically. As we have seen, the threat posed by Pecheneg raids on the western provinces escalated alarmingly in 1090, with the random attacks of previous years replaced by the migration of the entire tribe deep into Thrace. The resulting pressure provided the perfect opportunity for Turkish warlords in the east to move against Byzantium. Abu’l-Kasim was one who did just that. Around the middle of 1090, he began preparations to attack Nikomedia, an important town north of Nicaea that lay barely fifty miles from Constantinople.2

                              Alexios reacted immediately to try to hold on to the town. Five hundred Flemish knights, sent by Robert, Count of Flanders, who had met Alexios on his way home from pilgrimage to Jerusalem at the end of 1089, were supposed to have been deployed against the Pechenegs.3 When they arrived in Byzantium in the middle of the following year, they were instead immediately transferred across the Bosphorus to help reinforce Nikomedia. Their presence proved vital in the short term, but when the Flemish knights were recalled to face the Pechenegs at Lebounion in the spring of 1091,4 one of the oldest and most famous towns of Asia Minor, which had briefly served as the eastern capital of the Roman empire in the third century, fell to Abu’l-Kasim.5 The loss of Nikomedia was a major setback for Byzantium and raised serious questions about the empire’s long-term ability to hold on to its eastern provinces as a whole.

                              Fears about Byzantine prospects in Asia Minor were raised further by the fact that others were also poised to exploit the problems facing the empire. Danishmend, a charismatic Turkish warlord, launched daring raids from eastern Asia Minor deep into Cappadocia and on major towns such as Sebasteia and Kaisereia.6 Then there was Çaka, an ambitious Turk who established himself in Smyrna on the western coast of Asia Minor and paid local shipbuilders to construct a fleet to attack a range of targets close to his new base, including islands in the Aegean.7 If anything, this was as serious as the loss of Nikomedia, for Çaka’s fleet gave him the power to strike further afield. It also allowed him to disrupt shipments from towns and islands along the coast, which were destined for Constantinople. At a time when the provisioning of the capital was already under pressure because of the Pecheneg threat, this brought with it the prospect of shortages, inflation and social unrest. Matters were made worse by a particularly severe winter in 1090–1, the harshest in living memory, when so much snow fell that many were trapped in their houses.8

                              A poem from around this period described how a woman from one of the provinces in Asia Minor endured such deprivation that she was forced to eat snake meat: ‘Did you eat snakes whole or only in parts? Did you cut off the tails and heads of creatures or did you eat all their parts? How could you devour poisonous flesh full of poison and not die at once?’ Such were the consequences of a terrible winter, severe famine, and the barbarian scourge.9

                              Efforts to deal with Çaka went spectacularly wrong. One local governor fled without putting up any resistance at all, while a hastily assembled force sent by the emperor to secure the western coast of Asia Minor was a fiasco. Not only was the Byzantine fleet routed, but Çaka managed to capture several imperial vessels in the process. This only served to accelerate gains he made elsewhere.10

                              The building up of Çaka’s fleet was a worrying development for another reason. Constantinople was protected by formidable land walls, ditches and heavily armed towers, but the Byzantines had a particular anxiety about the prospect of attack on the capital by sea. A giant sea chain laid across the entrance to the Golden Horn gave some reassurance, though in practice this often did not prove effective. Seaborne assaults on the city, even by small numbers of raiders, triggered hysteria amongst the inhabitants, as had happened in the ninth and tenth centuries, when Viking and Russian raiders made surprise strikes on the suburbs, causing widespread panic. In Çaka’s case, the fear was that the Turk might come to an accommodation with the Pechenegs and launch a joint assault on the city. In the spring of 1091, rumours began circulating that there had been exchanges between the nomads and Çaka, with the latter offering his support against Byzantium.11

                              The mood in the capital became dark and poisonous. In the presence of the emperor and his retinue in the spring of 1091, the patriarch of Antioch, John the Oxite, delivered a damning assessment of the empire’s predicament. The contrast to the upbeat view provided by Theophylact barely three years earlier could not have been sharper. Khios had been lost, said the patriarch, as had Mitylene. All the islands in the Aegean had fallen, while Asia Minor was in complete turmoil; not a single fragment of the east remained.12The Pechenegs, meanwhile, had reached the walls of Constantinople, and Alexios’ efforts to deal with them had proved singularly ineffective.13 Reflecting on why the threats had become acute, John reached a stark conclusion: God had stopped protecting Byzantium. The lack of military success and the terrible hardships being endured were the fault of the emperor, declared the patriarch. Alexios had been an outstanding general before he became emperor but since then he had brought one defeat after another. By seizing the throne in 1081 he had angered God, who was now using pagans to punish Byzantium. Repentance was urgently required if things were to change.14 This apocalyptic verdict is a stark indication of the scale of the problems affecting Byzantium at the start of the 1090s.

                              The rapid downturn in Asia Minor was viewed with horror by westerners living in Byzantium. ‘The Turks allied themselves with many nations and invaded the rightful possessions of the empire of Constantinople’, wrote one eyewitness from central France. ‘Far and wide they ravaged cities and castles together with their settlements; churches were razed down to the ground. Of the clergymen and monks whom they captured, some were slaughtered while others were with unspeakable wickedness given up, priests and all, to their dire dominion and nuns – alas for the sorrow of it! – were subjected to their lusts. Like ravening wolves, they preyed pitilessly on the Christian people whom God’s just judgement had handed over to them as they pleased.’15

                              News of the devastating collapse in Asia Minor spread quickly all over Europe. Stories of plunder and arson, kidnap and sexual violence were reported across France, for example, with gory accounts of brutality, disembowelling and decapitation recorded by monks in their chronicles.16Information of this kind was passed on by westerners who were living in or visiting Constantinople in the early 1090s, such as a monk from Canterbury, who had made a home for himself in the capital, or an awestruck traveller who described the sights of Constantinople and recounted the conversations he had with its inhabitants.17

                              Alexios himself was the source of some of the reports describing the horrors endured by Byzantines at the hands of the Turks. A letter sent by the emperor to Robert, Count of Flanders, gives a devastating picture of the situation in Asia Minor in 1090–1.18 This correspondence has traditionally been viewed as a forgery, its contents discounted by generations of scholars on the grounds that Byzantium’s eastern provinces had been lost by 1081 and that there was therefore no major change in conditions in the years immediately before the First Crusade. Thus the claims about the shocking reversals against the Turks have been regarded as wild, implausible, and with only a slender basis in fact. Scholars have forcefully argued that the letter is a fabrication to rally support against Byzantium at the start of the twelfth century after relations between Alexios and some of the senior figures who took part in the Crusade irretrievably collapsed.19

                              It is widely recognised, conversely, that a letter probably was sent by Alexios to the Count of Flanders in the early 1090s, given the relations between the two men. As such, it has been suggested that there was an original document sent from Constantinople that provided the base of the letter that survives – albeit translated, elaborated on and added to.20 Certainly, the prose and language of the letter are unmistakably Latin, while the diplomatic and political thought are clearly western, rather than Byzantine in style.

                              However, this does not mean that the text is a falsification. As we have seen, there were many westerners living in Constantinople in the late eleventh century, including a number who were close to the emperor. As such, both the tone and ideas expressed in the letter could just as easily represent the hand of a foreigner writing in the imperial capital, as that of an author writing after the First Crusade. And in this respect, what is perhaps most striking about the letter is that almost everything it says tallies with the new picture of Asia Minor that can be established from other contemporary sources. The letter to Robert of Flanders also reports desecration of churches in the early 1090s that we know about from elsewhere: ‘The holy places are desecrated and destroyed in countless ways and the threat of worse looms over them. Who cannot lament over these things? Who has no compassion when they hear of it? Who cannot be horrified? And who cannot turn to prayer?’21 The letter contains accounts of the ferocity of the Turkish attacks which likewise find parallels with other sources from this period, albeit in more detail: ‘Noble matrons and their daughters, robbed of everything, are violated, one after another, like animals. Some [of their attackers] shamelessly place virgins in front of their own mothers and force them to sing wicked and obscene songs until they have finished having their way with them … men of every age and description, boys, youths, old men, nobles, peasants and what is worse still and yet more distressing, clerics and monks and woe of unprecedented woes, even bishops are defiled with the sin of sodomy and it is now trumpeted abroad that one bishop has succumbed to this abominable sin.’22

                              It certainly made sense for Alexios to appeal to Flanders, having already received military support in the form of 500 knights shortly beforehand. Alexios hoped to attract further assistance from Count Robert, a man of similar character to himself – ascetic, pious and pragmatic. And while the desperate descriptions of the situation in the east have been dismissed by many as implausible, there is much to suggest that the letter genuinely reflects Byzantium’s dire position. Even the downbeat statement that ‘although I am emperor, I can find no remedy or suitable counsel, but am always fleeing in the face of the Pechenegs and the Turks’, is not out of place at a time when one of the highest clerics in the empire could state publicly that God had abandoned Alexios.23 The siege mentality that had begun to emerge in Constantinople strikes a closer chord with the letter than often presumed.