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Thursday, April 9, 2020

Saladin and Byzantium - An Unholy Alliance

The brutal sack of Constantinople in 1204 dominates discourse about the relationship between the crusaders and the Byzantine Empire. Yet, as important and shocking as it was, this one episode should not be allowed to obscure everything that preceded and followed it. Relations between Byzantium and the crusader states were complex and fraught with misunderstandings and mutual misconceptions, but they were also punctuated by periods of cooperation. 
Equally important: the Byzantines were not innocent lambs devoured by evil Latin wolves. Rather, the attack on Constantinople had its roots in actions taken by the Byzantines themselves, one of the most important of which was an alliance forged with Saladin with the goal of destroying the Crusader States. 

Andronicus I Comnenus swept into power on the back of fervent anti-Latin feelings, directed against the Dowager Empress Marie of Antioch, who was regent for her underaged son Alexius II, the son of Manuel I. Following anti-Latin riots in Constantinople in 1182 in which the Genoese and Pisan residents of the city were slaughtered, Andronicus seized power. He had Empress Marie and her lover murdered, and in September 1183 had himself crowned co-emperor with Alexius. Within two months, he had strangled Alexius and seized sole power for himself, "legitimizing" his actions by marrying the murdered Alexius' 13-year-old bride.

While his domestic policies included attempts to fight corruption and reform the administration of the Empire particularly in the provinces, his foreign policy consisted fundamentally of a repudiation of Manuel I Comnenus' pro-Western policies and alliances with the crusader states. Significantly, Andronicus had been an exile from Manuel's court and had fled to Damascus and Baghdad, where he had been well-received by Nur al-Din. 

In June 1185, two years into his reign as Byzantine Emperor, Andronicus sent an envoy to Saladin, Nur al-Din's successor, proposing a treaty of alliance between their empires. The purpose of the proposed alliance was the destruction of the crusader states. After a successful conquest of the crusader states, the Byzantine Emperor generously offered to divide the spoils, by retaining Jerusalem and all the (wealthy) coastal cities for himself and giving the rest (Transjordan?) to Saladin. All Andronicus required of Saladin was an oath of homage and the promise to render assistance to the Eastern Roman Empire whenever requested. One can only imagine Saladin's response for it is not recorded, but it is not hard to imagine that he laughed out loud at so much unfounded insolence.

Before Saladin's ambassadors with his official response could reach Constantinople, Andronicus was savagely torn to pieces by the mob in Constantinople and replaced by a  man who had rebelled against him and himself faced arrest and execution: Isaac Angelus. The latter had also sought refuge in the court of Damascus along with his elder brother, Alexis, who was still there at the time Isaac was acclaimed emperor by the mob. Isaac used this fact to renegotiate the treaty with Saladin, which was duly confirmed by an imperial decree. 

Isaac then recalled his brother, but Alexis foolishly chose to return to Constantinople by way of Acre. It was now 1186, the King of Jerusalem was Baldwin V, a child, and the regent of the kingdom was the savvy Raymond of Tripoli -- who was himself well-connected in Saladin's court. He certainly had wind of the new alliance between Isaac and Saladin targeting Jerusalem, and he promptly imprisoned Alexis. 

An outraged Isaac pressured Saladin to attack Jerusalem and free his brother. Saladin did both -- although it is unlikely he did so as a favor to the Byzantine Emperor. By January 1188, Saladin was in control of the entire kingdom except for Tyre, and the terms of the treaty with Constantinople were completely irrelevant. Saladin made no move to surrender any territory to the Byzantines, but he did allow the Greek Orthodox Church to take control of the Christian shrines in the newly occupied territories. 

Meanwhile, the Western European powers were preparing to mount a major campaign to re-take the Holy Land. Arab accounts suggest that Saladin was genuinely unsettled. He was particularly concerned about the prospect of the Holy Roman Emperor, Friederick Barbarossa, bringing a large army to the Near East. It was now Saladin's turn to make demands based on the alliance with Byzantium: he sent ambassadors to Constantinople to re-negotiate the terms of the anti-Western alliance. He expected the Byzantines prevent -- or at least harass, delay, and impede -- the passage of any crusading armies entering Byzantine territory. Isaac happily agreed to the new terms.

The contents of the treaty did not remain secret. By September of 1188, Conrad de Montferrat sent letters to the West detailing the extent of Byzantine treachery. It must be remembered, that Conrad had himself been married to a Byzantine princess and his brother Rainier had been Emperor Manuel I's son-in-law, the husband of Manual's daughter Maria. Both Rainier de Montferrat and his imperial wife had been murdered in Constantinople at the same time as Marie of Antioch. Conrad had friends in Constantinople, because many there opposed Isaac's anti-Christian alliance. Allegedly, in return for preventing any crusading armies from reaching the Middle East, Saladin promised to restore Jerusalem and Palestine to Constantinople. In addition, a clause envisaged a joint campaign to reconquer Cyprus, which had rebelled and was independent, not yet a Latin kingdom. 

Isaac, however, maintained a facade of friendliness toward the West, negotiating with Frederick Barbarossa for the passage of his armies "unmolested," and promising to provide markets and ensure a "fair exchange" of currency.  Just before the Holy Roman Emperor set out on crusade in May 1189, he sent envoys to Constantinople to announce his impending arrival. They were promptly imprisoned and their horses and possessions turned over to Saladin's representatives in the Byzantine capital. 

That did not stop Frederick Barbarossa. When the German crusaders found no markets ready to sell them provisions, they 'foraged' for whatever they needed. When units of the Byzantine military poorly disguised as 'bandits' harassed them, they destroyed them. From Nish to Sofia, Barbarossa drove the Byzantines out if their fortifications and at Philippopolis defeated them soundly. He ravaged Thrace from Enos to Thessalonica demanding the release of his ambassadors, but he resisted pressure from within his own ranks to turn his army on Constantinople. Barbarossa remained true to his vow and his aim, which was the liberation of Jerusalem, not the conquest of a Christian country. 

In February 1190, Isaac finally recognized that Saladin wasn't going to do anything to help him stop Barbarossa and that without help he wasn't able to stop him. He signed the Treaty of Adrianople, which again promised markets and fair exchange rates. Isaac helped Barbarossa cross into Asia -- and reneged on all other aspects of the agreement. 

It didn't matter. The German Emperor soon crossed into the Sultanate of Rum, where he promptly and decisively defeated the Seljuk army at the Battle of Iconium. His tragic death four months later put an effective end to the German contribution to the Third Crusade -- but it was hardly Isaac's doing.

Saladin recognized this. Arab sources summarized the alliance with Constantinople as follows: "In truth, the Greek king has never succeeded in his enterprises; we gain nothing from his friendship, and need fear nothing from his enmity." (1)

But the damage to Byzantine relations with the West had already been done. Although the alliance between Damascus and Constantinople ended in 1192 it left a legacy of bitterness and mistrust. The West, particularly the Holy Roman Empire, viewed the Byzantines as duplicitous traitors to Christianity. Here, along with the massacres of the Italians in 1177 and again in 1182, are the seeds of the Fourth Crusade.

(1) Abu Samah, quoted in Charles Brand, "The Byzantines and Saladin, 1185-1192: Opponents of the Third Crusade," Journal of Mediaeval Studies, Vol. XXXVII, # 3, April 1962, 178.

The Third Crusade is the focus of "Envoy of Jerusalem," recognized as the Best Biography 2017 by Book Excellence Awards and as Best Christian Historical Fiction 2017 by Readers' Favorite Book Awards. Find out more at:

1 comment:

  1. Very informative entry. I wasn't familiar with the Latin side of the story. The 11th and 12th centuries are amazing in their complexity.


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