Saturday, December 5, 2020

The First Crusade and Emperor Alexius

We're From France and We're Here to Help

Alexius I Comnenus
Alexius I Comnenus.

Following the Byzantine defeat at Manzikert in 1071, the Empire lost Anatolia to the Seljuk Turks. This was no small matter, as it contained the manpower desperately needed for the Imperial Navy and Army. It also supplied food and raw materials and was the site of numerous cities that controlled the surrounding territories. While Byzantine forces held a bridgehead across from Constantinople, trends were not flowing in the Empire's direction.

Things were not much better in the West, where Norman adventurer Robert Guiscard captured Bari and threw the Byzantines out of Italy. Emperor Michael VII had appealed to the Pope in Rome for help, which backfired spectacularly when Pope Gregory took this as a sign of weakness and began extending his own influence across the Adriatic.

Robert Guiscard
Robert Guiscard (1015-1085).

The Byzantines were still alive a kicking, however. Only a hundred years before, its armies had been campaigning in Syria and down toward Jerusalem. Nobody thought the Empire was about to disappear. A vigorous new emperor, Alexius Comnenus, took over on 4 April 1081. Only 24, he represented the hope of the Empire, but he was tested immediately when Guiscard invaded Imperial territory and took the key port of Dyrrachium (Durrës, Albania). In a sign of things to come, Alexius finally defeated Guiscard and Guiscard's eldest son Bohemond with the aid of the Varangian Guard, who were extremely eager to defeat any Normans after the Battle of Hastings fifteen years earlier. Things settled down after this, with the Empire intact but thirsting for revenge against the Turks.

It was in this atmosphere that Alexius began to think about reconquering Anatolia. The Turks there were finding it hard to digest the former Roman territory and were quarreling among themselves. Alexius knew he needed help, however, and he decided to try to get the Western Christian states to send troops. This was a fateful decision with consequences that remain with us in the 21st Century.

Pope Urban II at Clermont
Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont, given a late Gothic setting in this illumination from the Livre des Passages d'Outre-mer, of c 1474 (Bibliothèque national). Note that this does not depict the actual speech inciting the Crusades, as that occurred on a nearby hill.

When Pope Urban II made one of Rome's periodic outreaches to Constantinople in late 1094 to mend the Great Schism of 1054, Alexius agreed to send legates to a religious conference at Piacenza in northern Italy. These conferences always had high-sounding religious discussions on abstract principles as their announced purpose but inevitably descended into more mundane matters of the earth such as how to handle this or that king's adultery and the like.

The Byzantine legates at Piacenza started the ball rolling, and thus, it is to them we can credit the actual germination of the entire Crusader concept. They talked grandly about recovering the Holy Lands while also casually mentioning in passing that there was a lot of booty to be had in the old Christian cities that the Turks had captured. Pope Urban listened carefully, and after the conference he took a long, slow trip back to his native France, mulling over what the Byzantines had said. He announced another council to meet at Clermont, France, where he said he would announce something of importance to all of Christendom. This attracted huge crowds in the small city, exactly what Urban wanted.

Pope Urban II statue
Statue of Pope Urban II at Châtillon-sur-Marne.

At this second council, Urban gave a great speech. It was "great" because of the effect it had, not because of what said, because we don't know that. But whatever he said from a platform erected on a nearby hill, it electrified the crowd and spurred French nobles into action. The gist of Urban's 27 November 1096 speech was that a huge army had to be assembled to reconquer the lost Holy Lands in a Holy War and that it should begin this adventure no later than the Feast of the Assumption, 15 August 1096.

Back in Constantinople, Alexius soon heard about the pope's speech at Clermont but was somewhat taken aback. It had never been his intention to have a foreign army come to his territory and begin battling the Turks. All he wanted was some mercenaries and troops to operate under his command. This whole idea of a "Holy War" was nonsense, as the Byzantines had been fighting the Turks continually for many years and there was nothing "holy" about it. However, Alexius decided to make the best of it and make the crusading knights his allies rather than simply another invading army.

Peter the Hermit during the First Crusade
Peter the Hermit leading the First Crusade, as depicted in Abreviamen de las Estorias, 14th century (The British Library).

The People's Crusade

So, Alexius went to work preparing for the arriving western armies. He stockpiled supplies for them at critical waypoints such as Durrachium so that the arriving soldiers would not scavenge the countryside. He also told units of his own army to "escort" the arriving soldiers and make sure they stayed out of trouble. Alexius hoped that he could get these dangerous armies through his own territory with as little trouble as possible and possibly get some use out of them once they were in Anatolia. In the back of his mind, he must have been thinking about how these armies already had tried to conquer his kingdom in 1081 and been stopped only with great difficulty.

The first arriving Westerners, however, turned out to be a decidedly mixed bag. Led by Peter the Hermit, they were simply untrained vagabonds, tens of thousands of them, that had been captivated by the monk's wild tales of redemption in the Holy Lands. They traveled by land and soon gained a terrible reputation for looting cities and stealing from everyone in their path.

Peter's force arrived on 1 August 1096, and Alexius got them away from Constantinople as quickly as possible. He provided transports for them to cross the Bosphorus on 6 August and after that washed his hands of them. Peter led his men (and women and children) first to Nicomedia (Izmir), then further south to the vicinity of the Seljuk capital at Nicaea. After some defeats, and in the absence of Peter who had returned to Constantinople, the ragtag army began to retreat but was slaughtered by Turks who ambushed them outside of Cibotus. This ended the so-called "People's Crusade." Oh, and Peter the Hermit escaped back to Europe and lived a long and quiet life.

Map of the First Crusade

The Real First Crusade

The demise of Peter the Hermit's ragtag army did not end the First Crusade. It just served as a warning that the Turks were not to be trifled with and defeating them required a professional army. This soon began arriving, and once assembled, it was composed of roughly 75,000 troops led by knights and many nobles. Alexius quickly realized that this was a formidable problem and reached some basic agreements with the Crusaders. In return for Byzantine aid, they could invade the Seljuk Turk lands but had to return all land formerly held by the Empire. Once that was done, the Crusaders could form their own empires as they wished beyond the Empire's borders.

Hugh of Vermandois
Hugh of Vermandois.

Hugh of Vermandois, younger brother of King Philip I of France, arrived first by ship in November 1096 and agreed to all of Alexius' terms. Subsequent French nobles, however, proved to be a different story. The two brothers Godfrey of Bouillon and Baldwin of Boulogne arrived by land on 15 December 1096 after seizing some formerly Byzantine lands along the way. They promptly refused to make any agreements with Alexius, perhaps thinking such would force them to relinquish the lands they already had annexed. This began several months of wrangling and raiding by the two brothers, and Alexius finally lost patience and sent troops to attack the Crusaders just before Easter. This finally convinced the French to swear an oath to Alexius and agree to return recaptured Byzantine cities to the Empire.

Bohemond of Antioch
Bohemond of Antioch (Merry-Joseph Blonde).

Not taking any chances, Alexius shipped the French across the Bosphorus the day after Easter. However, just as they were leaving, another French army arrived. Led by Bohemond, Prince of Taranto and eldest (and disinherited) son of Robert Guiscard, this army was well-behaved and disciplined. Bohemond quickly gave his oath of loyalty to the Emperor, avoiding the earlier unpleasantness. However, the next arrival, Raymond IV of Saint-Gilles, caused more problems, with their plundering resulting in another battle with Byzantine forces. Alexius engaged in some delicate diplomacy and finally induced Raymond to make the same agreement as the others had. The final arrival was Robert, Duke of Normandy, the oldest son of William the Conqueror, and he did not cause any problems.

The Crusaders quickly captured Nicaea in June 1097 and, as agreed, turned it over to Alexius. Victories following on 1 July 1097 at Dorylaeum, 3 June 1097 at Antioch, and finally on 15 July 1099 at Jerusalem. The Crusaders began setting up their own fiefdoms, Baldwin of Boulogne at Edessa and Bohemond at Antioch. Godfrey, who was older than brother Baldwin, became ruler in Jerusalem after Raymond turned down the honor.

Godfrey of Bouillon
Godfrey of Bouillon, first Crusader ruler of Jerusalem.

Hearing of all these successes, Alexius had mixed feelings. It was nice to hear that Jerusalem had been recovered after almost four hundred years, but the new Crusader states, especially at Antioch, made him nervous. That city had been in Imperial hands as recently as 1078 and had a large Greek population, so technically it should have been returned to the Empire. However, on the bright side, the local Turks were not pleased with having lost Antioch and now began to focus their efforts against it rather than the Empire itself, so there was some benefit to the Empire from its capture.

Following these successes, more French armies arrived in the following years. They had some initial successes, such as capturing Ancyra (Ankara) and returning it to the Empire but soon ran into trouble. The Turks understood the terrain and knew that water sources were the key to survival, so they poisoned wells and laid traps at rivers along the Crusaders' routes. One Crusader army was ambushed and destroyed by the Danishmends at Mersivan, another was destroyed at Heraclea Cybistra (Eregli), another was ambushed at a river. A crushing defeat of Bohemond's army at Harran (near Edessa) caused him to return to Europe to raise new armies. While there, Bohemond went to great pains to ascribe all of the Crusaders' defeats to lack of support from the Byzantine Empire.

Map of the Crusades
The First Crusade was followed by several more, most of which achieved little.


The First Crusade was of some benefit to the Byzantine Empire. It recovered territory for the Empire and gave the Seljuk Turks new enemies to fight, sparing the Empire the burden of defending the entire eastern frontier. The recapture of Jerusalem, while of no benefit to the Empire, provided the Crusaders with a base of operations in the Middle East that gave the Empire some breathing room. Valuable cities such as Nicaea and Ancyra were returned to the Empire, and Anatolia's manpower and supplies to some extent were once again available. The extent of these successes was limited to the fringes of the Seljuk Empire but did achieve a lasting impact there that enabled to Byzantine Empire to survive for another 350 years.

However, in the long term, the First Crusade also did a great deal of damage to the Byzantine Empire. It demystified the Middle East and made people think about how they benefit personally from fighting there. The Byzantines, while fellow Christians, received no special status from that fact and were seen as just another foreign power that had a lot of nice things that might look better in French cathedrals. 

The Crusades quickly degenerated into a free-for-all in which the Crusaders sought to establish their own kingdoms in the East without regard to what Emperor Alexius or his successors wanted. Bohemond, during his return to Europe, disparaged the Byzantines and convinced Pope Paschal that the entire Middle East was ripe for conquering. The religious motive behind the Crusades disappeared, replaced by pure imperialism and greed. Since these objectives now were backed by the Pope, planners could dispense with the pretense that Crusades were about religion instead of pure self-ambition. Henceforth, the Crusaders would view the Empire as just another potential victim of their naked aggression, a change in attitude that would have dire consequences for the Byzantine state in later years.

Siege of Jerusalem
Taking of Jerusalem by the Crusaders, 15th July 1099, Émile Signol, oil on canvas (1847).


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