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Thursday, March 26, 2020

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Review: 'Byzantium and the Crusades', by Johnathan Harris.

Confirming the superiority of the West over the Orientalized Byzantines.

by Ferdinand III


 



Harris is an expert on Byzantium, and his book is an invaluable and extraordinarily interesting resource. He looks at the Crusades in the Holy Land, from 1095 to 1291, through the perspective of the Byzantines. Harris uses mostly Byzantine and 'Eastern' sources, as well as chronicles from Latin and Western participants who had first-hand experience with the various Crusades. Harris' work confirms what is pretty clear when one reads about the Crusades. The Latin sack of Constantinople in 1204, in which a Christian army on its way to the Holy Land was diverted to attack the capital of Eastern Christianity, was an event brought upon the Byzantines by their own perfidy, greed, policy making and duplicity. It was in other words, a long overdue payback by the West to the Eastern Greeks.

 

Harris' theme thus runs counter to the mainstream view of Crusading. In universities, schools, the media, and most books, the Western Crusades are portrayed as a long, sorry saga, of Catholic European imperialism, greed, lust for Near Eastern wealth, and the unprovoked disruption of wonderful, peaceful, sophisticated and advanced Muslim societies, with the so-called 'sack' of Constantinople the apogee of illiterate barbarism and bloodshed. In reality the opposites are true.

 

The 1204 sack of Constantinople was perhaps 1/10 as 'bloody' as the Turkish assault, slaughter, pillage and rape of 1453, in which some 40.000 people were marched off into slavery and some 20.000 killed. No one was enslaved in 1204 and no more than 3.000 were killed – the fighting was over quickly and the 'Crusaders' never did slaughter anyone in the streets [though rape, idol destruction, and the theft of anything containing gold or silver was rampant, as is usual in medieval warfare]. Muslim war against Christians had already be in train for 460 years before the first Crusade entered Turkey, and over 560 years before the Crusaders breached Byzantium's walls in 1204. It is a puerile mind indeed which makes the claim that the eternal and vicious Muslim Jihad was not the originator of the Crusades. It is also nescient to claim that the Crusades were some sort of imperialist venture. As Harris and others make clear the flow of money was one way – from West to East and no Franks migrated to settle in the Crusader states.  In fact most Crusaders left after a few weeks or months of fighting, due to a lack of money, a belief that duty was done and their sins remitted, or a desire to return to their families and home societies. There was little point in fact, to migrate from Europe to Israel or the Holy Land. Compared to Europe the Holy Land was poor and offered little in the way of attractions.

 

The main value of this book, is that Harris takes a realistic and pragmatic view of Byzantium through its own sources, and how the Eastern Greeks tried to 'manage' the Crusades. After their crushing annihilation in 1071 by the Turks at Manzikert, the Eastern Greeks or Romans, appealed to Western Europe for help in rolling back the Muslim tide. The Crusades followed and in 1099 Jerusalem was retaken. Yet the Byzantines never viewed the Westerners as allies. The Greeks or Romans, eyed the Latins as competitors, viewing Western power which was obviously much greater by this period than Byzantine, as a threat to the continuation of the Eastern Roman empire. So much for Christian unity in the face of the Muslim threat.

 

Harris relates very well the threats that the French Normans based in Sicily posed to the Byzantines, especially to Eastern Roman lands in Greece and the seaboard of Anatolia. Venice was at times both an ally and a competitor to Byzantine ambition in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Byzantines also faced threats from the Bulgars, Russians, various Turkish tribes and were marred by intra-Byzantine civil wars and claims to the throne. In the anarchic chaos and in the face of declining power, Byzantine policy became ever more tangled, corrupt and confused – an empire grasping at straws.

 

Harris repeatedly makes the important point that in essence and in-toto, Byzantine policy made little sense, and was the main cause of the empire falling to the Latins in 1204 [it was recovered in 1261].

“The Byzantine political elite were working within the context of a strongly defined political ideology to which all subscribed, whatever their differences in terms of faction or party.”

 

That policy was quite simplistic though in implementation it could be complex. The Byzantine state was weak. By the 11th century it had no standing army and no navy – it relied on paid mercenaries to do its fighting. But it did have money from trade and manufacture; and it did have an imperial reputation of wealth and power. Eastern Roman policy against its enemies was at its core one of crass simplicisme. Pay off your enemies. Divide them against each other by using gold. Hire foreigners to do your fighting for you. Make many and sundry alliances to counter-act any threats. It was the policy set of a weak and enfeebled state and it lead ineluctably, to lies, cheating, immorality and opacity:

“Duplicity was almost a measure of sophistication, a mark of superiority over the uneducated and uncultured.”

 

The Byzantine elite Harris reports, were not only arrogant but under-educated. They were tutored in memorization of classic Greek texts, and schooled in the use of arcane rhetoric in which lies could be presented as honest facts. In other words, the system of education was not oriented towards science, discovery, investigation or robust debates and innovation. It was premised on arcana and deceit. It must have produced a wonderful collection of rich and sophisticated nitwits:

“To the modern mind, there is something faintly absurd about the conviction of the Byzantine elite that their classical education gave them all the skills they needed....”

 

That would be an understatement.

 

The fruits of bad policy and not very rational, clear-minded or moral leadership would find its expression in some 200 years of conflict with the West. Byzantine policy by itself, ensured that there would be a war with Latin armies. In fact in every single Crusade, as Harris relates, we see that Byzantines or their mercenaries attacked Crusading armies; helped the Turks; and denying Latin soldiers food and supplies – all in contravention of various signed treaties. As Harris so helpfully relates, Byzantine sources reveal the depths of Eastern depravity:

“The importance of Choniates's History, however, goes far beyond its basic balance. It is from Choniates that we first discern doubts being raised inside Byzantium as to the wisdom of applying traditional Byzantine foreign policy aims and methods to crusading expeditions and to the crusader states.”

 

Choniates was a high ranking Byzantine leader and politician and had personal first-hand experience of the Third Crusade.

“For Choniates the message was clear. Byzantine diplomacy was a fatal mix of swaggering arrogance and abject submission, and completely unsuited to the situation in which the empire now found itself.”

 

In many ways the Byzantines viewed the Latins as more of a threat than the Turks. The Second Crusade was purposefully destroyed by the Greeks, when their scouts lead the Crusading army into a Turkish trap in southern Anatolia and the entire army was wiped out. This was standard Greek policy. Harass, attack, and deflect the Crusading armies as they passed through Byzantine territory. Pay Turkish mercenaries to harass or give battle to the Christians. Deny them food, or sell them poisoned food at inflated prices. Help them not.

“In order to weaken the passing crusade [the second] armies so that they would have no opportunity to attack Byzantine territory....[the emperors had] ordered attacks on their armies in the Balkans usually by Pecheneg mercenaries. There was little difference between this and paying the Turks to do the same thing in Asia Minor.”

...
“The promised supplies [for the Third Crusade] also failed to materialise forcing the Germans to forage for food. When the German army reached Philippopolis on 24 August 1189, news arrived that Isaac II [the Byzantine emperor], had arrested and imprisoned the ambassadors that Frederick had sent ahead to Constantinople.”

 

Open alliances with the Turks persisted during almost the entire duration of the Crusading period – a fact not lost in Western Europe, who were sending men and treasure to both rescue the Holy Land from Turkish occupation and in so doing, save Byzantium by defeating the Muslims. One main source of irritation for Latins was the Byzantine claim that its church was the true 'Mother Church', one that had taken on the legacy and glory of Rome and its founding Church. In other words, Byzantium expected Rome to submit its religiosity to that of the Eastern Church. Since the Latin West was so much wealthier in aggregate, stronger, more civilized in many ways, and certainly more innovative and dynamic, this absurd claim that the 'Franks' should submit their spirituality to the powers of the Eastern Orthodox church would have grated hard on the nerves and sensibilities of not only Crusaders and Popes, but simple laymen as well.

“...no amount of repackaging could disguise the fundamental differences that existed between east and west over the questions of papal authority and the Filioque.” [Filioque references which church should be supreme - the Western or Eastern].

 

By 1203 there were over 100 years of conflict and bad blood between the Latins and Byzantines. Seen in the 'long duree' of history, an all out conflict while not inevitable, was probably unavoidable. The Greeks did their best to provoke the Latins . Venetians were expelled from Constantinople in 1171 and their property seized. Some were killed in riots. And 10 years later;

“Adronicus....During his seizure of power in 1182, he permitted a massacre of Italian residents in Constantinople...Henceforth it would inevitably be seen....like an agreement with the sultan of Syria and Egypt, Saladin, over the protectorship of the Holy Places...as deliberate and sinister machinations against the Holy Land and Jerusalem.”

 

Not only were the Greeks helping the Muslims and attacking Western armies. But they were expelling and killing citizens and traders living in their capital. Anti-Latin sentiment within Byzantium, appeared to be all too real to Western eyes.

 

As Harris confirms the attack on Constantinople in 1203 and its reduction in 1204, was not an accident. It was for the most part however, foreordained given Byzantine perfidy and poor policy and diplomacy.

“When the soldiers of the Fourth Crusade first attacked the walls of Constantinople in the summer of 1203, they did so at the behest of a Byzantine prince, Alexios Angelos, while the stiffest resistance they encountered came not from the Byzantines but from the western European troops in imperial service.”

 

The attack was motivated in part of course by Venetian ambition in the Eastern Mediterranean and the necessity for money. The Fourth Crusade owed the Venetians through a contractual agreement, a lot of money that they did not have. The easiest available source of wealth was of course resident in the Eastern capital of Christendom:

“The need for Byzantine wealth was all the greater because the Fourth Crusade had been plagued by shortage of finance from the very beginning.”

 

Not all the Crusaders agreed to attack Constantinople. Many left directly for the Holy Land. But even so the reality is pretty clear. If the taking of the tired, obsolete, superstitious and ill-educated Eastern Orthodox capital by Western forces had not occurred in 1204, it would have happened at some point. Harris's work makes this rather clear. The beauty of the book is that he dispenses with all of the ill-informed opinions about the 'sack' of 1204. And Harris uses Byzantine sources to prove the point.

 

It is clear that by 1200, the Byzantine empire was no longer an imperial state of great use or import. It was poor, shrivelled, mired in illiteracy and superstition, weak with no standing armies or navies, and living off its past. Like the Western Roman empire, which for the last 200 years of its existence obstructed Europe's growth; the Eastern empire was a force for regression, not progress. One of the 'miracles' of history is that it lasted until 1453. It was already a decaying carcass long before 1204.

 

All of this is revealed in this excellent book.

 


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