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Monday, March 20, 2023

Diplomatic Relations with the Orthodox Powers of the Mediterranean

In contrast with the fundamental alignment of foreign policy goals between the crusader states and Western powers, tensions with Constantinople existed from the very start. Yet, it is wrong to assume that relations between the Franks and Byzantium were consistently hostile. On the contrary, diplomatic relations between the Christian powers in the Eastern Mediterranean were complex and fluid. 

The baseline of these relations was drawn by the Byzantines, who called themselves ‘Romans’ and viewed anyone not part of their empire as ‘barbarians’. To the Byzantine elite, the Kings of France and England were no more civilised than the Sultans of Damascus and the Atabegs of Aleppo. Even in the twelfth century, during a period of accord between Constantinople and the crusader states, the Byzantine emperor could describe 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’.[i]

In addition to a profound sense of cultural superiority, the Byzantines viewed Constantinople — not Rome or Jerusalem — as the centre of the Christian world. 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 was here that the emperor, the Head of the Church, resided and ruled. Because the patriarchs viewed the emperor as the Church head, the pope’s influence in Constantinople was nil.

To complicate relations further, the concept of Holy War was alien to Greek Orthodox theology.[ii] What the Byzantine emperor envisaged when he requested aid from the West in 1097 was several hundred trained knights ready to serve as mercenaries in the Byzantine army. The emperor expected to place these fighting men under the control and command of Byzantine authorities. As described, what he got was tens of thousands of undisciplined ‘armed pilgrims’ (an oxymoron in Byzantine tradition). The Byzantine government and administration were overwhelmed, baffled and ultimately frightened of the monster they had created.

This had a profound and long-lasting impact on Frankish-Byzantine relations because the failure of the Byzantines to understand crusading led them to assume the ‘real’ goal of the crusades was the capture of Constantinople. The emperor’s daughter Anna Comnena wrote in her history: ‘to all appearances, they were on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem; in reality, they planned to dethrone Alexius and seize the capital’.[iii] 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 … fight the Turks … but [in reality] to gain possession of the Romans’ land by assault and trample down everything in front of them’.[iv] The fact that the crusaders made no assault on Constantinople and, in fact, continued to the Holy Land was attributed to the brilliance of Byzantine policy. The Byzantine court patted itself on the back for deflecting the crusaders from their evil intentions and successfully diverting their energies to the conquest of Muslim-held territory instead. 

The conquest of Jerusalem failed to assuage Byzantine suspicions but instead created new problems. First, Byzantine emperors claimed all the lands conquered by the crusaders since they had once been part of the Eastern Roman Empire. Second, the Byzantine emperors as (in their eyes) the Head of the Christian Church claimed to be the protectors of the Holy Sepulchre. Yet the crusaders were understandably unwilling to recognise the claims of the Byzantine emperors for conquests won with hard fighting, blood and casualties. Nor did  they acknowledge the emperor as head of the Church.

In the century after the First Crusade, the main bone of contention was Antioch. This had belonged to Constantinople as recently as 1086 and thus had only been in Seljuk hands twelve years when it fell to the crusaders. Yet the siege of Antioch had been bitter and costly, and the majority of the crusade’s leaders refused to recognise Byzantine sovereignty over Antioch. Every new Prince of Antioch tried to assert his autonomy, but the perennial Seljuk threat, particularly after the loss of the County of Edessa, eventually forced each Latin prince to turn to Constantinople for aid. As a result, periods of relative Antiochene independence alternated with periods of abject submission to imperial domination.

In contrast, Byzantine claims to the territories composing the Kingdom of Jerusalem were nominal. Palestine had not been under Constantinople’s control since 637, and no serious pressure was exerted on the Kings of Jerusalem to do homage for Jerusalem. This made it easier to find common ground. Nevertheless, relations first hit a new low when Reynald de Châtillon invaded Byzantine Cyprus and engaged in an orgy of savagery, including the mutilation of prisoners, extortion, rape, pillage and destruction. 


Surprisingly, this incident proved to be a turning point in Frankish-Byzantine relations. Baldwin III came north to meet with the emperor. He was prepared to make symbolic concessions in light of the Second Crusade’s failure and the ensuing reluctance of the West to respond to his appeals for aid. Manuel, for whatever reasons, was prepared to meet Baldwin halfway and not press for absolute submission. 


What emerged was a thaw in relations between Jerusalem and Constantinople that produced quantifiable benefits for both parties. Not only did the alliance deter Seljuk attacks on Antioch, it put an end to Nur al-Din’s rhetorical threats to Jerusalem itself. Furthermore, the Byzantine fleet assisted Amalric in his ambitions in Egypt, while Byzantine gold flowed into the Kingdom of Jerusalem, particularly for projects such as the renovation of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. In exchange for Manuel adopting ‘crusader rhetoric’ and recognizing crusader goals as honest and worthy, he received some vague form of homage from King Amalric of Jerusalem. Although the exact nature of Amalric’s submission is not known, he paid a state visit to Constantinople in 1171 and evidently recognised the emperor as his overlord in some unrecorded manner; this was a more symbolic than material submission to the emperor. 


The new relationship between Constantinople and Jerusalem was cemented by three strategic, royal marriages: Manuel Comnenus married the Princess Marie of Antioch, and Baldwin III and Amalric both married Byzantine princesses. The period of détente between the two major Christian powers of the eastern Mediterranean lasted almost a quarter-century until Manuel’s death in 1180. 


Just three years later, however, Andronicus I Comnenus swept into power on the back of fervent anti-Latin feelings. He had exploited anti-Latin riots – which had resulted in the slaughter of the Latin population in Constantinople – to seize power and murder Empress Marie and her lover. He first had himself crowned co-emperor with Manuel’s son Alexius, but two months later strangled Alexius and took sole power for himself. His foreign policy consisted fundamentally of repudiating Manuel I’s pro-Western policies and alliances with the crusader states. 


Significantly, Andronicus had fled to Damascus and Baghdad when out of favor in Constantinople. In June 1185, he sent an envoy to Saladin proposing a treaty of alliance between their empires. The purpose of the proposed pact was the destruction of the crusader states. Before Saladin's ambassadors could reach Constantinople with his official response, Andronicus was savagely torn to pieces by the mob in Constantinople and replaced by Isaac Angelus. The latter, however, readily renewed the treaty with Saladin — sending off alarm bells in Jerusalem and igniting outrage in the West.


By 1189, the situation had changed yet again. The Franks had been obliterated at the Battle of Hattin, but a major crusade to retake the Holy Land was gathering. Arab accounts suggest that Saladin was especially unsettled by the prospect of the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, bringing a large army to the Near East. Saladin sent ambassadors to Constantinople to renegotiate the terms of the anti-Western alliance. He expected the Byzantines to prevent – or at a minimum, harass, delay and impede – the passage of any crusading armies transiting Byzantine territory. Isaac happily agreed to the new terms yet singularly failed to live up to them — though not for want of trying. 


Thus, by 1191 Saladin recognised that his treaty with Constantinople was worthless. Arab sources summarised 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’.[v]

But the damage to Byzantine-Frankish relations had already been done. Although the alliance between Damascus and Constantinople ended in 1192, it left a legacy of bitterness and mistrust. Furthermore, the West, particularly the Holy Roman Empire, viewed the Byzantines as duplicitous traitors to Christianity. This ill-fated alliance, along with the massacres of the Italians in 1177 and again in 1182, laid the foundations for the so-called Fourth Crusade. 


In 1204, Constantinople fell to an army of mercenaries in the service of the Doge of Venice. The victors established the Latin Empire of Constantinople, a fragile association of states with Latin rulers that controlled Constantinople and much of what is now Greece, but failed to destroy Byzantine opposition. Instead, Byzantium fractured into several competing states, all claiming to be the rightful successor to the old empire. Already by 1261, Constantinople was again in Orthodox hands, and the restored Byzantine Empire lasted nearly another 200 years. 


Relations between the crusader states and the Latin Empire of Constantinople is a topic that has not been adequately investigated by scholars. Perhaps the most important diplomatic trend of this period was the fundamental change in Byzantine attitudes towards the Latin West. Chris Wright, in his fascinating article ‘On the Margins of Christendom’, argues that the Byzantines could no longer dismiss Western culture and politics as irrelevant. He suggests that while rightly outraged by the attack on Constantinople, Byzantine elites, for the first time, recognised that the earlier crusades had been genuine efforts to liberate the Holy Land. They began to skillfully evoke crusader rhetoric to condemn the Pope’s self-serving calls for new ‘crusades’ to defend Latin control of Constantinople. 


Unfortunately, no study of the response of the Franks of Outremer to this development has been published. Likewise, the diplomatic relations between the restored Byzantine Empire and the crumbling crusader states in 1261-1291 remains an unexplored diplomatic chapter in the history of the Latin East. However, there is evidence that the Lusignan Kings of Cyprus maintained cordial diplomatic ties with the Byzantine emperors-in-exile. Also noteworthy, if inadequately documented in western literature, was the overall positive diplomatic relationship between the crusader kingdoms and the Armenians, except for the bitter war of Antiochene succession between 1216 and 1233.

[i] Manuel Comnenus quoted in Michael Angold, ‘The Fall of Jerusalem (1187) as Viewed from Constantinople’, The Crusader World, ed. Adrian Boas (London: Routledge, 2016), 291.


[ii] An excellent summary of Orthodox attitudes towards the church militant is provided in: Nikolaos Chrissis, ‘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.

[iii] Chris Wright,  On the Margins of Christendom: The Impact of the Crusades on Byzantium’, in The Crusades and the Near East: Cultural Histories, ed. Conor Kostick (London: Routledge, 2011), 61.

[iv] See note 4, Wright, ‘On the Margins of Christendom’, 62.

[v] 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 bulk of this entry is an excerpt from Dr. Schrader's comprehensive study of the crusader states.

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


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