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Monday, March 28, 2022

The Byzantine Reaction to the First Crusade

As almost every student of the crusades knows, it was the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Comnenus who ignited the crusading movement by sending an appeal for aid to Pope Urban II. Yet the response of the West did not resemble what the Emperor had envisaged and the First Crusade triggered a new period of tension between the Latin West and the Orthodox East largely based on fundamental misunderstandings. Below is a short summary.

Alexios' request that reached the West in 1095 was a response to increased pressure on the Eastern Roman Empire’s eastern frontiers. The Seljuk Turks had converted to Islam and with the passion of the newly converted and the skills of nomadic warriors had set about establishing their domination over Syria. This conquest complete, they turned on Armenia, Cilicia, and the Levant, driving the Byzantines out, before striking at Anatolia. In 1071, the Byzantine Emperor Romanus IV Diogenes had assembled the military forces of his empire and marched to the defense of this vital heartland -- only to be decisively defeated on August 26 at the Battle of Manzikert.  

In the quarter-century that followed, the idea that Western (barbarian) Christians might be able to assist the Empire in its struggle with the Turks had gained popularity. After all, the Byzantine Emperors were familiar with the fighting qualities of many of the Western “barbarians” because they employed Norse, Norman, English and Frankish mercenaries in the Varangian Guard, the personal body-guard of the Emperors. The Byzantines had also had the less than pleasant experience of clashing with the Normans over control of Southern Italy and Sicily. While these encounters increased Byzantine contempt for the Normans as barbarians, it also convinced them of the value of the Normans as fighters.  

What the Byzantine Emperor had in mind when he requested aid from the West was the recruitment of several hundred trained knights to serve as mercenaries in the Byzantine army. The Emperor planned and expected to place these trained fighting men strictly under the control and command of Byzantine authorities. What he got, as everyone knows, was tens of thousands of undisciplined, amorphous “armed pilgrims” (an oxymoron in Byzantine tradition). The Byzantine government and administration were overwhelmed, baffled and ultimately frightened of the monster they had created.

Byzantine sources reveal a sense of horror at the sheer numbers of “crusaders” that suddenly descended upon them. Sources described them as “a crowd as innumerable as grains of sand and the stars” or “like rivers which, flowing from all directions…came against our [lands]” and “beyond count.” The daughter of the ruling Emperor, Anna Comnena, writing decades after the First Crusade (that she had personally witnessed) claimed that “the whole of the West and all the barbarian races who had inhabited the land beyond the Adriatic” descended on her homeland. [Anna Commena, trans. Aphrodite Papayianni, 283-284.] 
Yet nearly as terrifying as their numbers was the character of these “pilgrims.” Particularly shocking was the presence of women and children among the “pilgrims.” Because the Byzantines had requested military support, they expected trained soldiers. Because they did not have a secular tradition of pilgrimage, they did not understand why women or children would want to undertake a long and perilous journey. Because they did not see Jerusalem as central to Christianity (now that it had been replaced by the New Jerusalem, Constantinople), they could not fathom the emotional appeal of Jerusalem for Latin Christians.  

Added to the bewilderment about the nature of the crusaders themselves was confusion -- and ultimately disgust -- at the lack of unified command. The Byzantine Empire was still a highly centralized and hierarchical state. All power derived from the Emperor, even the church was no competitor and challenger to secular authorities as in the West. Byzantine armies had traditions reaching back to the legions of ancient Rome. Although in this period the army had been newly reorganized under Alexios I, the basis of this army remained proud, professional, and disciplined units. The Byzantines retained from the Roman past clear command structures, ranks, and regiments — units of a specified size (e.g. 10, 50, 100, 300, 500).The First Crusade, in contrast, had no overall commander. There were no organized units. Even those bodies of men associated with one another through kinship and vassalage could be any size from a handful to scores and all remained volunteers on pilgrimage for the benefit of their individual soul, not soldiers under orders.

It is hardly surprising that when confronted with this flood of undisciplined, disorganized armed pilgrims engaged in an incomprehensible undertaking that the Byzantines became unnerved. The irrational always triggers suspicion in humans, and so, unable to believe that these disorganized and undisciplined barbarian hordes could really hope to regain Jerusalem, the Byzantines concluded that the real intention of these masses descending on them was the capture of Constantinople itself!

Thus, Anna Comnena wrote in her history: “to all appearances, they were on pilgrimage to Jerusalem; in reality, they planned to dethrone Alexius and seize the capital.” [Wright, 61] A Byzantine historian writing about the Second Crusade (1147-1159) likewise claimed: “…the whole western array had been set in motion on the handy excuse that they were going to cross from Europe to Asia and fight the Turks en route and … seek the holy places, but truly to gain possession of the Romans’ land by assault and trample down everything in front of them.” [Wright, 62]

The fact that the crusaders failed to take Constantinople and, in fact, did continue on to the Holy Land where they captured Jerusalem, established independent states and continued to fight the Saracens for the next two hundred years was attributed (conveniently) to the brilliance of Byzantine policy. The Byzantine court patted itself on the back for deflecting the crusaders from their evil intents and successfully diverting their energies to the conquest of Muslim-held territory.
Indeed, the actual conquest of Jerusalem not only failed to assuage suspicions but rather created new problems. On the one hand, the Byzantine Emperors claimed all the lands conquered by the crusaders as their own since it had once been part of the Eastern Roman Empire.  Furthermore, the Byzantine Emperors as (in their eyes) the Head of the Christian Church claimed to be the protectors of the Holy Sepulcher. As the crusaders were understandably unwilling to recognize the claims of the Byzantine emperors to their conquests (won with hard fighting, blood, and casualties) and equally unwilling to recognize the primacy of the Orthodox Church over their own, the Byzantine suspicions of the western “barbarians” only increased.

The tragedy was that Byzantine suspicions of the crusaders turned into a self-fulling prophesy. In the first century of crusading, Byzantine emperors so frequently hampered or harassed crusaders that sentiment in the West turned increasingly hostile to the “Greeks” (as the Latin Christians called the Byzantines). The history of tension and broken promises as seen from the crusaders’ perspective made the assault against Constantinople possible. 

The Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades: Kingdoms at the Crossroads of Civilizations is available for pre-order on and

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is also the author of six books set in the Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades:





1 comment:

  1. Just imagine this: Alexios is setting in the Palace doing business and a messenger comes in and whispers into his ear and he screams "Bohemond! Oh God not Bohemond!"


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