Byzantium and the First Crusade: Three Avenues of Approach

Byzantium and the First Crusade: Three Avenues of Approach

By Jonathan Harris

Estudios bizantinos, Vol.2 (2014)

Godfrey of Bouillon before the Byzantine emperor Alexius Comnenus in Constantinople, 1097. Painting by Alexandre Hesse.

Abstract: A recurring theme in the historiography of the First Crusade is that of the Byzantine emperor asking Pope Urban to send a small contingent against the Turks and receiving instead vast armies over which he had no control. The crusade was thus completely unexpected and the emperor played no part in its genesis. Recent work has challenged that thesis and further approaches have emerged. A second theory argues that this was a novel departure in foreign policy. The emperor was in fact deeply involved in the origins of the First Crusade and played a leading role in shaping its ideals and goals. The third approach is more modest in scope: it argues that he was certainly involved but this was no unprecedented innovation, simply the extension of a tried and tested response to crisis. This response involved seeking outside allies, providing them with a financial incentive and even bringing a spiritual element into the agreement. It was the use of the last of these standard tactics that was to lead to misunderstandings between the Byzantine emperor and the crusaders.

Introduction: In his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) recounts the fable of a shepherd who, feeling thirsty in the Indian sun, prayed to the gods for water. The obliging deities answered his request but not in the way he expected. They diverted the river Ganges and the flood waters swept away the shepherd’s flock and his home. Gibbon tells the story in order to compare the Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos (1081-1118) with the luckless shepherd. Alexios had sent envoys to Pope Urban II at the council of Piacenza in 1095 to ask if he would encourage some western knights to enter Byzantine service and fight against the Seljuk Turks. Instead of this useful addition to his forces, he got the veritable flood of the First Crusade.

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