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Thursday, July 11, 2019

Byzantium and the Crusades Part I: The Real Rome

It is easy to conceive of the crusades as a conflict between Latin Christian West and the Muslim Middle East, forgetting that between these two geographic/
religious groupings was an Orthodox Christian Empire -- what we have come to call the Byzantine Empire. It was the latter that both triggered the crusades and became a victim of them. In a four-part series, I look briefly at the complex role of Byzantium in the crusades, starting today with a look at the Byzantine perspective of the world on the eve of the crusades.

Despite its near-ubiquitous use, the term “Byzantine Empire” to describe the powerful state that at one time controlled the Balkans, Caucasus, Middle East, and North Africa is an anachronism. The term was not used until after the demise of this once great empire. During the roughly one thousand years of its existence (ca. 330 to 1453), the residents of the “Byzantine Empire” called themselves “Romans” and the “Byzantine” Emperors viewed themselves as the legitimate successors of the Roman Emperors. Emperor Constantine I (Roman Emperor 306 – 337) had moved the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to a city he built on the Bosporos, straddling the straits, in order to have a foothold in both Europe and Asia. He named his new capital after himself: Constantinople.

Constantine I as Founder of Constantinople
Roughly half a century later, in 395 AD, the Emperor Theodosius divided the Roman Empire into two parts.  All of Western and Central Europe and the eastern parts of North Africa fell to the “Western Empire” ruled from Rome, while most of the Balkans, Caucasus, Middle East, and Egypt composed the “Eastern Empire” ruled from Constantinople. However, the Western Empire was at this time very weak and in 404 the capital was moved from Rome to Ravena. In 476 AD, the last Western Roman Emperor was deposed, making the Emperor in Constantinople the sole successor to the traditions, glory, and heritage of the entire Roman Empire.

Seen from Constantinople, the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire under Charlemagne in 800 AD was not a legitimate “revival” of the Western Roman Empire. First, the Orthodox Church did not recognize the authority of the Pope to crown Emperors, and second Charlemagne was himself a Frank — i.e. he was a barbarian, not a Roman. 
Charlemagne by Albrecht Duerer
The Byzantine categorization of all peoples who were not subject to Constantinople as “barbarians” was a fundamental feature of Byzantine identity that shaped and colored all their policies and interactions. To the Byzantine elite, the Kings of France and England and the Holy Roman Emperors were no less uncivilized barbarians than the sultans of Damascus and the Atabegs of Aleppo. The former were only slightly better for being Christian barbarians rather than Muslim barbarians.

Thus, even in the 12th century, during a period of (rare) accord between Constantinople and the crusader states, the Byzantine Emperor could describe the Latin Christians as “Barbarian peoples whose way of life is entirely incompatible with our own. Their gaze is scarcely human, while ours is full of humanity; our speech is agreeable, while theirs is harsh and garbled. They are all armed and … bloodthirsty … while we are peaceful and compassionate and refuse to carry weapons needlessly, not being in thrall to Ares.” [Manuel Comnenus, trans. Michael Angold, 291.]

Added to this profound sense of cultural superiority came the religious belief that Constantinople — not Rome or Jerusalem — was the center of the Christian world and that the Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire was the head of the Church. Thus, the authority of the Pope was nil in Constantinople, where the patriarchs of the Eastern Church were more beholden to the Emperor than the other way around. In the eyes of the “Romans” living in the “Roman Empire,” Constantinople was not only the new Rome, it was also the new Jerusalem since it as here that the Head of the Church resided and ruled, surrounded by sacred relics displayed in the Pharos chapel in the Imperial district of the city.

Agia Sophia, Constantinople/Istanbul
With Constantinople the center of the Christian world, the role of Jerusalem remained  secondary in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Even when Jerusalem was a component part of the Byzantine Empire, there was no strong tradition of pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Although for devout Latin Christians the pilgrimage to Jerusalem was viewed as the ultimate pilgrimage long before the era of the crusades, for Eastern Orthodox Christians a “pilgrimage to Jerusalem was to a large extent the preserve of ascetics."  [Angold, 291.]

If the tradition of pilgrimage to Jerusalem was rare, the concept of Holy War was outright alien. As Nikolaos Chrissis explains: “…in Byzantine thought there was an emphasis on peace, while war was not seen as meritorious or glorious in itself but rather as a necessary evil, a last resort if all efforts at peace had failed.” [Chrissis, 261.] The Orthodox Church resisted recognizing soldiers who died defending Christendom as martyrs and even questioned whether soldiers shouldn’t be excluded from communion for three years “since their hands were not clean.” [Chrissis, 261.] While the attitudes of the Orthodox clergy toward soldiers defending Christians and Christendom softened over time as the threat became ever greater, still Orthodox Christianity never produced militant religious orders similar to the Templars, Hospitallers, and Teutonic Knights.

All these attitudes combined to make misunderstandings and tensions between the Eastern Roman Empire and the crusaders inevitable. Next week I look at how those conflicts manifested themselves in the early crusades and the first half of the 12th century.

Sources and recommended reading:

Angold, Michael, “The Fall of Jerusalem (1187) as Viewed from Constantinople,” in The Crusader World, ed. Adrian Boas (London: Routledge, 2016), 289-309.

Chrissis, Nicolaos, “Byzantine Crusaders: Holy War and Crusade Rhetoric in Byzantine Contacts with the West (1095-1341),” in The Crusader World, ed. Adrian Boas (London: Routledge, 2016), 259-277.

Papayianni, Aphrodite, "Memory and Ideology: The Image of the Crusades in Byzantine Historiography, Eleventh - Thirteenth Centuries," in The Crusader World, ed. Adrian Boas (London: Routledge, 2016), 278-288.

Wright, Chris, "On the Margins of Christendom: The Impact of the Crusades on Byzantium," in ed. Conor Kostick (London: Routledge, 2011), 55-82.

Balian d'Ibelin married a Byzantine princess and their sons retained an exceptional appreciation of Byzantium's role in the Eastern Mediterranean.

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Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her current series describes the civil war in Outremer between Emperor Frederick and the barons led by John d'Ibelin the Lord of Beirut. Dr. Schrader is also working on a non-fiction book describing the crusader kingdoms. You can find out more at:

1 comment:

  1. ". . . the Kings of France and England and the Holy Roman Emperors were no less uncivilized barbarians than the sultans of Damascus and the Atabegs of Aleppo. The former were only slightly better for being Christian barbarians rather than Muslim barbarians."


    A rather arrogant attitude, considering that the Crusades only began because "the Romans" screamed "rape" a begged the "uncivilized barbarian" Kings of the west to send them aid.


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