Gibbon, Part 13: The Crusades and the Division of the Byzantine Empire

At the end of the 10th century, when Pope Urban launched the first Crusade (1095), the Byzantine Empire had stood firm for centuries. Despite its declining territories, armies, and influence, the Empire still had brief periods of resurgence (such as that under the Comneni) and Constantinople’s immense opulence, wealth, and luxury glittered unopposed among all the cities of the known world. The capital’s natural and artificial defenses had successfully withstood assaults by all sorts of foes – European barbarians as well as Muslim invaders. However, it was eventually Christian crusaders themselves who performed the first successful siege on the city, fundamentally undermining the impenetrable reputation of the great city and with it the Empire’s.

The Rise of the House of Seljuk

The historical background of the Crusades is only properly understood by paying attention to the rise of the Turks under the house of Seljuk. Their empire stretched from Samarkand (in modern-day Uzbekistean) all the way to Greece and Egypt. Before the Seljuks came into power, the Gaznevide empire reigned in the eastern provinces of Persia. Under Mahmud, who lived at around 1000 AD and was the first to be called Sultan (a title created by the ambassador of the Muslim caliph at Baghdad), the empire conquered India in a lucrative expedition that resulted in the destruction of Hindu religious icons, which were naturally distasteful to the Muslim invaders. Mahmud was the greatest of the Ghaznevide sultans and had a famous reputation for justice and magnanimity, attested to by many apocryphal stories about his reign, two of which are recounted amply by Gibbon. However, Mahmud made the mistake of allowing the emigration of the Turkmen into this kingdom, settling them in the plains of Transoxiana and Khwarizm (modern day Uzbekistan), where they formed a buffer against the barbarian nations beyond the boundaries. The Turkmen grew in power and started raiding the borders of the empire. When Mahmud realized this, he marched in person to meet them in battle, but it was too late. The Turks emerged victorious, elected Togrul Beg, grandson of Seljuk, as their new king, and the Seljuk empire was born.

As we have briefly mentioned during our run-through of the centuries of Byzantine emperors, the emperor Romanus Diogenes initially led a series of Roman victories against the Seljuk Turks, but he was then soundly defeated and captured by the second Seljuk sultan Alp Arslan (1029-1072). Arslan treated the captured emperor leniently, demanding sizable but not astronomical terms of peace, which included a large ransom of gold for the captured emperor, permanent control over the Roman provinces of Anatolia that he captured, a marriage alliance, and release of all Muslim captives. He did not ask for additional provinces. While Romanus agreed, when he returned, he found himself disowned by his own court. While Arslan was initially prepared to support his claim to the throne, his imprisonment and death destroyed those plans. Later Arslan was stabbed to death while sitting on his throne by a desperate Khwarazmian rebel.

Under the sultan Malek (1055-1092), the Seljuk Empire blossomed into a center of culture and learning. He also reformed the Persian calendar. While Gibbon doesn’t really convey the details of this point well, Persian civilization was at this time among the most advanced in the world. At that time, while the Holy Roman Empire and other kingdoms had been established, Gibbon describes Europe as still “plunged in the deepest barbarism,” presumably still reeling from the aftermath of the fall of the Western Roman empire. In other words, the barbarians had not quite come into their own. However, he also adds an obstinate disclaimer that

“…the light and splendour of Asia may be ascribed to the docility rather than the knowledge of the Turkish conquerors.”
(Chapter LVII)

After Malek’s death, a civil war of succession initially erupted between his sons, but they were persuaded that uniting together to fight against the tempting Byzantine empire was more appealing. At the same time, the Roman empire was embroiled in an internal power struggle between the generals Bryennius and Botoniates. Under the command of the eldest brother, Soliman (Suleiman), the Turks decided to support the claims of Botoniates. While Botoniates succeeded in defeating his rival and claiming the throne, his victory introduced Turkish arms into the empire and even the capital. The help of the Turks was only purchased with the loss of all the provinces beyond the Bosphorus and Hellespont. Gibbon calls this successful Turkish establishment in Asia Minor as the “the most deplorable loss which the church and empire had sustained.” Famous Christians cities such as Antioch and Laodicea effectively fell into the hands of the Islamic empire. (Antioch nominally maintained loyalty to the Roman crown but was cut off and surrounded by Islamic controlled territory.) The sultan set up his palace in the (also historic) city of Nice (of the Council of Nicaea), only a hundred miles away from Constantinople.

However, the spark that truly started the chain of events leading to the Crusades were the Turks’ conquest of Jerusalem. As we mentioned briefly in the last post, while Jerusalem had fell under Muslim conquest, the defenders pleaded with Omar and extracted a guarantee of religious freedom in exchange for a tax. As a result, over the years Jerusalem had developed into a city of extreme religious diversity, with different sects of Islam, Catholicism and the Eastern Orthodox church all maintaining a presence, often clashing with each other. The policies of the caliphs rose and fell over the years; one of the caliphs, Hakem, instituted a harsh policy towards non-Muslims, but this was undone by the next caliph; in general, the policies tended towards toleration. Multitudes of Christians of all ranks from all over the world undertook long journeys of pilgrimage to visit and revere the original sites where Jesus once lived, taught, and died. By this time the superstitious spirit which Gibbon deplored had firmly taken foothold in Christendom, and numerous Latin rulers, kings and nobles regularly organized elaborate spiritual expeditions to the Holy Land.

The Turks under their general Atsiz quickly swept away the Shi’a caliphate and conquered the city, massacring 3,000 citizens, an unintended atrocity that was rectified by the removal of Atsiz by the Seljuks. The governance of Jerusalem was entrusted to a Turkish emir named Ortok, who decided to institute a harsher policy towards Christians. Pilgrims and churches were often extorted and harassed. Despite this, Gibbon viewed the inconveniences of the new policies as being grossly exaggerated by the later Crusaders. He claimed that the sacrilege of Hakem was much graver than anything Ortok instituted. Nevertheless, the news of these mini-sacrileges spread throughout Europe, eliciting reactions from nd as Gibbon puts it so elegantly,

a new spirit had arisen of religious chivalry and papal dominion; a nerve was touched of exquisite feeling; and the sensation vibrated to the heart of Europe.

The First Crusade

The outrages suffered by the pilgrims at Jerusalem afflicted a hermit named Peter, who went home and reported the conditions there to Pope Urban II. The influential pope organized a large gathering of over 30,000 Christians from all over the Europe, including bishops and archibishops, nobles, knights, soldiers, and Byzantine ambassadors, whereupon the reported troubles of the pilgrims were trotted out and denounced. The call to holy war was sounded. Hundreds of thousands of combatants from all walks of life started their journey of over 600 miles from Austria to the Byzantine Empire and then the Holy Land. Gibbon allows that all the crusaders must have been motivated by spiritual zeal to some extent, but as common sense and nature dictates, it is probable that for many of them, the allure of glory and the treasures of the Turks was probably the most dominant factor. Some of these were professional knights or soldiers, while others were poor farmers and ordinary men who were poorly equipped and trained. Gibbon points out that none of the participants of the First Crusade were kings or princes of the first rank – the highest ranking of the Crusader army was Godfrey of Bouillon, a Frankish duke. Two other prominent commanders were Bohemond of Taranto and his nephew Tancred. As the crusade progressed, it became clear that the core of the army were the Franks – among the masses of disorganized, naive religious zealots, they were the only ones who actually knew how to fight.

The massive herd of crusaders was quickly infested with licentiousness, greed, and disorder, clashing with the numerous peoples they encountered along the way. They persecuted Jews who were living innocently in Germany, were attacked by the Bulgarians and Hungarians over disputes regarding supplies, and finally arrived in the court of Alexius Comnenus in Constantinople. From there the combined forces of the Byzantines and the pilgrims besieged Nice, the seat of the Seljuk sultan Suleiman II. The sultan retreated to the mountains with the majority of his army, from which he mounted several attacks on the Christian encampment around the city. This was not enough, as the crusaders were able to persuade the inhabitants of Nice to surrender. Provoked, the sultan gathered his forces and engaged them in the fields, but lost. The crusader army moved on to Antioch, which was captured after a dramatic series of battles where it was besieged, defeated, then defended, as the Turkish and Arab reinforcements arrived late and attempted to besiege the conquerors in their newly won city. Eventually, Jerusalem itself was captured after a five-day siege. The crusaders showed no mercy, finally being able to unleash all the hardships and frustrations they had suffered during their perilous journey: over 70,000 Muslim and Jewish inhabitants were massacred, such a large number that the infection from the dead bodies was a serious concern. The crusaders established a Kingdom of Jerusalem and elected Godfrey as its first ruler. After the successes of the first wave of crusaders, more Latin nobles and their armies were tempted to join up with them in the Holy Land, but many died of famine and disease in the long journey. The Kingdom of Jerusalem was not to remain peaceful for long: in the following decades and crusades the Muslims struck back. In 1187, almost a century after the First Crusade, the famous Muslim commander Saladin besieged and conquered the city.

Meanwhile, the emperor Alexius took advantage of the Turks’ preoccupation with them to regain some of the lost Byzantine territory in Greece and Asia Minor. This caused him to be denounced by the crusaders for not attending the crusade in person, but Alexius’ actions is regarded by Gibbon as crucial in delaying the fall of the declining Byzantine empire.

The Sieges of Constantinople

The siege and capture of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade is indelibly tied with the schism between the Eastern and Western churches. Since the accession of Charlemagne, where the Western papacy became intertwined with the power of the Carolingian throne, the two churches had been separated but not officially cut off from each other. In the ensuing years, a fundamental theological controversy started to arise concerning the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity: did he proceed from the Father, or both the Father and the Son? The Western church resolved the question in favor of the latter answer, inserting a clause “and the son” in the Nicene creed, also known as the filioque. The Eastern church did not agree. However, theological disputes are only one aspect of the historical schism: according to Gibbon, “the immediate cause of the schism of the Greeks may be traced in the emulation of the leading prelates, who maintained the supremacy of the old metropolis superior to all, and of the reigning capital inferior to none, in the Christian world.”

Besides the hostile and stubborn attitudes of the clergymen, the conduct of Alexius and his successors towards the crusaders who passed through their lands worsened the relations between East and West. The successor of Andronicus (the last emperor that we covered when we last left the chronicles of the Byzantine empire) was luxurious, useless Isaac Angelus, who was busy hunting in Thrace when his brother Alexius III Angelus, supported by the army, usurped the throne. Isaac’s young son, Alexius IV, was spared and escaped to Sicily. In exile, Alexius IV started entertaining ambitions about claiming back the throne, hearing of the opportunity presented by the approaching crusading army which was assembled at Venice and Zara. This was the army of the Fourth Crusade (1202-4), which had been called by Pope Innocent III after the failure of the Third Crusade (1189-1192) to retake Jerusalem. Alexius promised the crusaders a large payment of silver and the prospect of resolving the schism between the two churches: he vowed to make the Eastern church submit to the pope in Rome as soon as he and his father retook the throne. The crusaders, mostly consisting of Venetians and French, accepted the offer, and the stage was set for the siege of Constantinople.

The combined French and Venetian forces first attacked the blockade at the mouth of the harbor of Constantinople, destroying the chain stretched between two towers that restricted access. They then continued to attack the main city by land, a force of merely 20,000 soldiers against 400,000 inhabitants. True to their respective characters, the French attacked Constantinople from the front, while the Venetians attacked from the side of the harbor using their ships. The land assault was initially repulsed by the defenders through sheer numbers. The naval assault was more successful, as the Venetian soldiers landed on the shore and immediately started scaling the walls. Others leaped directly from their masts to the ramparts of the city. The old but valiant Venetian commander Henry Dandolo led at the head of his own forces and was one of the first to land on shore; however, Gibbon cynically remarks that “his age and infirmities diminished the price of life and enhanced the value of immortal glory.” The cowardly Alexius III, despite his superior numbers, could barely muster together his forces for a sally, and in the end he escaped secretly to Thrace. The city surrendered, and both the rightful emperor and his deliverers marched triumphantly into the city.

The crusaders, however, did not easily forget the agreement that had been made. The payment of 200,000 silver marks was hastily extracted, but it was agreed that the unification of the two churches would take more time to achieve. Alexius, afraid of the unfamiliar prospect of managing the nation alone, pleaded for the crusaders to stay longer before their departure to Jerusalem. While they agreed, as time passed, the Byzantine subjects grew resentful both of the foreign forces encamping in the city and the ineffectual young emperor himself. They also viewed his secret religious agreements with the crusaders with contempt. Eventually, the population started a revolt that ended with the throne being taken by Mourzoufle, a noble from the house of Ducas who served as Great Chamberlain under Alexius. The unfortunate reigning emperor was imprisoned, beaten, and killed.

The usurpation of the throne inflamed the anger of the Latin forces, who then besieged Constantinople for a second time, a siege described by Gibbon as much more laborious than the first. Mourzoufle was a much more capable military commander who personally led the defense of the city. Still, the Greeks failed to burn the ships of the Venetian navy in the harbor; and while Mourzoufle was initially successful in repelling the land assault, promises of monetary reward and eternal glory were effective in motivating the crusaders scaling the walls. The forces guarding Mourzoufle were intimidated and routed, and the Franks and Venetians once again entered the city in victory.

(It is pertinent to remark at this point that Gibbon seems to believe that battles in general are mainly decided by the character and morale of the army, more than anything else. He does admit sometimes that technology, like Greek fire, could have played important roles, but the core of the battle’s progress remains the morale of the soldiers and their commander – especially the commander or king. Gibbon often mentions logistics, geography, and military tactics as part of the context of the battle, but he rarely talks about these factors in terms of deciding the victor. This is inline with the prominence of the character of the Roman emperors in determining the success or failure of the empire. In that sense, Gibbon is not a true military historian.)

While the crusaders, now without any restraint of promises to the emperor, were relatively merciful in treating the inhabitants twice conquered city, but the wealthy city was still sacked, the spoils being divided equally among the soldiers of the French and Venetians. The treasures of the opulent Eastern churches were part of the plunder, and the patriarch and clergy of the church ridiculed and harassed by the equally bigoted Latins. At this point Gibbon makes a telling remark about the nature of conquest.

At the first view, it should seem that the wealth of Constantinople was only transferred from one nation to another, and that the loss and sorrow of the Greeks is exactly balanced by the joy and advantage of the Latins. But in the miserable account of war the gain is never equivalent to the loss, the pleasure to the pain; the smiles of the Latins were transient and fallacious; the Greeks for ever wept over the ruins of their country; and their real calamities were aggravated by sacrilege and mockery.
(Chapter LX)

In other words, similar to the Second Law of Thermodynamics (or perhaps a direct consequence of it), wars are not a zero sum game; they are a negative sum game. Gibbon remarks on how much wealth was destroyed by the fires that spread through the city after the siege, and that much of the wealth taken by the crusaders was wasted. Many monumental works of art, including monuments and sculptures dating back to the Roman times were destroyed by the uncontrollable crusaders. As we shall see next, the crusaders did not institute a significantly more just or successful government than that of the Byzantine emperors: the wheels of history – the cycles of coronation and usurpation, of good and bad emperors, of disciplined competence and slothful incompetence, continued all the way until the final fall of the Roman empire. Still, while Gibbon’s remark may ring true in this case, there are certainly cases where war and conquest paves the way for social reform or technological progress, thus resulting in greater happiness in the long run.

The Seeds of Resurgence at Nice

The French and Venetians took control of the vanquished empire, deciding to elect the new emperor by a council of 12 electors, six from each nation. However, this was only for control of a fourth of the former empire; the three other parts were to be shared between the victorious nations. The young French commander Baldwin of Flanders was chosen. According to Gibbon, Baldwin was “valiant, pious, and chaste”, a descendant of Charlemagne and cousin of the King of France. His election was unanimously supported by the other crusader leaders. The rest of the provinces of the Byzantine empire was divided among the assortment of French and Venetian nobles. Dandolo, for example, received Romania. However, the hope of the Byzantine monarchy in the person of Theodore Lascaris, who had married the daughter of Alexius III. Theodore escaped from the crusaders and established his new throne in Nice, where he was welcomed by the populace. The cities of Prusa, Philadelphia, Smyrna and Ephesus were willingly incorporated into this new small empire of Nice. Besides Theodore, members of the minor branches of the Comneni occupied other small fragments of the empire in Trebizond and western Anatolia.

In the capital, the rule of the Latin emperor was cruel and oppressive, being always beholden to his Latin allies instead of being able to work for the good of his subjects. Religious differences and bigotry ensured that the new government was forever separate from the governed. The king of Bulgaria and Wallachia, Calo-John, disappointed by his failed attempts to gain the alliance with the Latin emperor, supported the growing revolt among the Byzantines. All over the country the people rose up and slaughtered the Latin occupiers. Instead of waiting for the reinforcements of his brother Henry, Baldwin chose to besiege the rebellious city of Hadrianople with only 140 knights. He was annihilated by Calo-John and taken prisoner, and died in captivity about a year later. The remaining Latins, under the organized command of Dandolo, retreated carefully to the town of Rodosto (now called Tekirdag, Turkey). Finally, Henry arrived and served as regent in place of his brother. He was eventually killed defending Thessalonica against Calo-John. The Latin empire in Anatolia did not last for long afterwards. Theodore Lascaris marched and conquered Hadrianople, and his successor and son-in-law John Vataces swept away most of the remaining parts of Asia Minor. Constantinople remained under Latin control, though not for long, and John proceeded to rule in Nice for thirty successful years. The Byzantines were only temporarily vanquished; they were to regain their rightful place in a short time.

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