Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Military History and Warfare: The First Crusade: the Call from the East by Peter Frankopan

Image resultThe past few years has seen a flurry of new books on the Crusades and to a lesser extent, Byzantium. Peter Frankopan's book, 'The First Crusade: the call from the east' challenges existing and long established views on Byzantine history in order to uncover the origins of the First Crusade. 
The traditional historical narrative of the First Crusade is not entirely dissimilar to that set out in Frankopan's book. Historians of the First Crusade view the Battle of Manzikert (1071) as a critical date in the origins of the First Crusade. The failure of the Byzantines to defeat the Turkish sultan Alp Arslan became the prelude to a decade of political instability in Constantinople and a steady piecemeal Turkish invasion of the Anatolian peninsula. The subsequent loss of Asia Minor to the Turks led the Emperor Alexios I to send a delegation to the Pope in order to request military assistance in the form of Western mercenaries. 

Frankopan's book differs from traditional accounts of the origins of the Crusade by focusing on the Byzantine perspective and the personal involvement of Alexios both in the build-up and the execution of the Crusade. Critical to Frankopan's analysis is his re-assessment of Anna Komnene's famous history of her father's reign, 'The Alexiad'. Anna Komnene's history is in many ways better described as a hagiography of her father. Anna Komnene presents the Empire as being on the verge of destruction prior to Alexios' ascension to the throne. The Alexiad's pervasive influence as one of the few surviving historical works from the period has distorted our understanding of the true position of the Empire in the years leading up to the First Crusade. As a result of Anna's influence, the generally accepted view amongst historians has been that Alexios inherited an Empire in which Asia Minor had been almost entirely lost. Frankopan successfully demonstrates that at the time of Alexios' coup in 1081, the Eastern frontier of the Empire had been largely stabilised. A subsequent truce with the Turks and an alliance with a Turkish ruler enabled significant portions of territory to be recovered in the period between 1081 up until the late 1080s. Frankopan draws attention to the references made within the Alexiad to troops being gathered from places in Asia Minor in order to defend the Western provinces. Clearly, there were places within the Eastern portions of the Empire that were holding out and stable enough to allow troops to be withdrawn to defend other provinces.

Historians of the Byzantine Empire have long recognised Anna Komnene's role as an apologist for the way in which her father came to power (through a military coup). Frankopan argues that Alexios was himself partially implicated in the collapse of Byzantine Asian Minor prior to the First Crusade. It is clear from all of the sources of the First Crusade that Asia Minor had been completed occupied by the Turks at the time of the Crusade. However, if as the traditional version of events states, Asia Minor had fallen before Alexios took power, why then did he wait fourteen years before requesting urgent assistance? 

Frankopan argues that immediately after coming to power Alexios' most important crisis was the Norman invasion of the the Empire's western provinces in 1081 led by Robert Guiscard. Alexios' truce with the Turks and alliance with a powerful Turkish magnate allowed him to spend several years dealing with the Normans. According to Frankopan, Alexios' Turkish ally Sulyaman ibn Qutalmish acted as his agent and began to reoccupy former Byzantine towns and strongholds taken by the Turks. This alliance was built upon the personal relationship between Alexios and Sulyaman. Crucially, Alexios made Sulyaman governor of the strategically critical city of Nicea. The close proximity of Nicea to Constantinople served both a buffer against an attack on the capital and a forwarding base for future campaigns in Asia Minor. Rather than entrust the governorship of Nicea to a Byzantine magnate (who might potentially use the city as a power base from which to seize the throne), Alexios appointed Sulyaman. 

When the Byzantine governor of Antioch converted to Islam and declared himself independent of Constantinople, it was Sulyaman who recaptured the city on behalf of Alexios. Unfortunately, Sulyaman died in 1085 and the city was again taken by the Turks. Worse still, the Turkish noble Sulyaman had appointed in Nicea refused to co-operate with Alexios and began to seize territory recovered by Sulyaman for the Empire. 

The situation was again brought under control briefly in the late 1080s when Alexios negotiated an alliance with the Sultan of Baghdad, Malik-Shah. Malik-Shah was equally concerned about the destabilising influences of the seizure of territory by local rulers on the peripheries of the Islamic world. Unfortunately Malik-Shah died in 1092 creating a power vacuum in the Islamic world. The Turks again began to seize Byzantine land so that by 1094/5 Asia Minor had been entirely lost. This, argues Frankopan, was the trigger for Alexios requesting military assistance from Western Europe and the immediate cause of the First Crusade. Anna Komnene masks her father's involvement in the loss of Asia Minor to the Turks. Contrary to the established view of Asia Minor being lost before Alexios became Emperor, the collapse in those provinces was partly a result of Alexios' failed policies. 

The remainder of the “The First Crusade: the call from the east” examines the First Crusade itself as well as the early sources that chronicled the events leading to the capture of Jerusalem.

Early twelfth century Western sources such as the Gesta Francorum (translated as the Deeds of the Franks) and later twelfth century sources like William of Tyre helped to reinforce the accusation that Emperor Alexios had failed to assist the Crusade and even actively tried to hinder it. Part of the reason why the role of Alexios in instigating the First Crusade is less well known even today is because of the souring of relations between Alexios and the Crusaders which took place during the campaign.

The key charge leveled against by many of the early medieval Western writers is that Alexios broke his oath to the leaders of the Crusade. Frankopan carefully examines the relationship between Alexios and the Crusade leaders and the legal framework which underpinned the agreements reached in Constantinople.

Feudal society within medieval Western Europe was structured around the control and distribution of land. Both knights and peasants submitted and gave homage to an overlord in exchange for protection. Alexios would have been aware of Western customs from the significant number of Westerns who had taken service within the Byzantine Empire. He personally met with and provided for the comfort of the most important Crusad leaders. Part of Alexios' strategy was was to ensure that the armies of the Crusade would be channeled productively and towards re-establishing Byzantine control within Asian Minor. The Crusade leaders swore an oath to Alexios to protect his interests and restore former imperial territory captured during the Crusade. In return, Alexios promised to supply and assist the Crusaders in their campaign. This arrangement seems to have been successful for at least the first year of the Crusade. Towns and cities captured by the Crusaders were handed over to Byzantine forces and the Empire was able to re-establish control over the coastal provinces of Asia Minor.

Whilst the Crusaders encountered many obstacles on the way to Jerusalem, the most critical period of the Crusade was that of the siege of Antioch. Byzantine-Crusader relations were tested to the extreme both during and immediately after the siege. The Crusading army spent almost a year camped outside of Antioch unable to take the city. Supplies became increasingly scarce and the the Crusaders were threatened by relief force sent against them from Mosul. The Western sources accuse Alexios of refusing to both provide the supplies which he had promised and also failing to send assistance to relieve the beleaguered Crusaders.

However, Frankopan argues that almost up until the very last phases of the expedition, the Byzantine Empire provided the Crusaders with regular supplies which were delivered from Byzantine Cyprus. Frankopan also challenges the accusation that Alexios' representative, Tatikios simply abandoned the expedition at Antioch. In reality Tatikios went to request further aid and supplies from the Emperor which were duly delivered. Alexios' subsequent refusal to join the expedition and take possession of Antioch is explained by the political realities facing Alexios. At the time of the First Crusade, it was simply too risky for Alexios to concentrate on one campaign and potentially risk an invasion in another part of the Empire or even a coup against him in Constantinople.

If Alexios more or less upheld his end of the bargain in supplying the Crusaders, why then was his role masked or even vilified in the subsequent accounts of the Crusade? Frankopan argues that part of the answer can be found in the subsequent conflict between Bohemond (a Norman of South Italian) and Alexios. It was Bohemond who eventually took control of Antioch and refused to surrender it to Alexios. In order to justify his own seizure of the city he and his supporters tried to portray Alexios as both duplicitous and an enemy of Western Christendom. Bohemond used the great fame and popularity he had gained through his role in the Crusade to raise an army in Europe in 1104 -7 for the purposes of invading Byzantium. Since this was an attack on a Christian nation, Bohemond's propagandists spread stories of alleged Byzantine betrayals during the Crusade. It did not help that Alexios had signed a truce with the Turkish sultan Kilidj Arslan immediately after the First Crusade. This truce was politically expedient and enabled Alexios to consolidate and rebuild within the reconquered territory. Nonetheless, the treaty with the Turks gave ammunition to Alexios' enemies in the West, many who would have been unaware of the complexities politics on the frontiers between Christendom and Islam. In the aftermath of the failure of the Second Crusade, similar allegations of treachery were used against Alexios' grandson Manuel Komnenos. Manuel, like his grandfather became a scapegoat for the problems which beset the Second Crusade.

“The First Crusade: the call from the east” is well-written and persuasive. There have been many histories examining the First Crusade, but this is perhaps the first one to focus and cast light on the central importance of the Byzantine role in both instigating and facilitating the campaign. Frankopan's reassessment of the sources restores the Emperor Alexios Komnenos role in history as a leading figure central to the story First Crusade.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Military History and Warfare: Count Belisarius by Robert Graves

The Byzantine Empire has always struggled to find a place within the Western historical narrative. Having meticulously set out the fall of the Western Roman Empire in his first three volumes of “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, Edward Gibbon almost reluctantly began his final three volumes by describing the history of the Eastern Roman Empire as a “tedious and uniform tale of weakness and misery”. This prejudice can be found even today in modern usage. The word “Byzantine” denotes something which is unnecessarily complex and to be avoided. This long standing negative view of Byzantium is perhaps a residual remnant of the often less than favourable medieval sources such as Fulcher of Chartres which subsequently infiltrated Western historiography.

Whilst never quite managing to break into the popular history circuit, interest in Byzantium has seen something of revival in recent years. A brave attempt at a narrative history was recently made in Lars Brownworth's “Lost to the West”. This was supported by an a series of podcasts detailing the lives of key Emperors over the 1100 years or so of the Empire's existence. The last few years have also seen the publication of several outstanding histories focusing on specific aspects of the Roman Empire's successor. Judith Herrin's “Byzantium: the surprising life of a medieval empire” and Jonathan Harris' “The End of Byzantium” are both excellent.

Robert Graves' most famous historical fiction is arguably his accounts of life in the early Roman Empire in “I, Claudius” and “Claudius the god”. However, it is less well known that Graves was also fascinated by Byzantium. In 1938 he published “Count Belisarius”, a piece of historical fiction that helps to bridge the later Roman Empire of antiquity with its medieval successor.

It is interesting to consider why this book is less well known in comparison to “I, Claudius” and “Claudius the god”. The subject matter is perhaps the obvious place to begin. Belisarius (500AD - 565AD) was an officer in the Emperor Justinian's army. Under Belisarius' leadership Justinian's armies reconquered large portions of the former Western Roman Empire, including North Africa, Italy and parts of Spain. Justinian's reign would later be described as a golden age for the Byzantine Empire. In addition to the reconquest of the Western Empire, Justinian instituted a widespread civic monument and building programme, culminating in the construction of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.

The period described by Graves in the book was one of great change for the Empire. Western Europe had already entered the 'dark ages' and the Eastern Roman Empire was changing its identity from an Empire culturally rooted in pagan classical Greece and Italy to a Christian medieval state. The real Belisarius was rapidly promoted from the Guards regiments of Constantinople to commander of the various expeditionary forces that were sent to defend the Empire's borders. There is little doubt that Belisarius was a general of the first rank. Graves describes and follows Belisarius' career from across the deserts of the Middle East, to the recapturing of Rome from the Goths.

Robert Graves had a clear understanding of the chronology of Justinian's reign. Each chapter is a set piece which charts Belisarius' career, victories and hardships. Juxtaposed to the military campaigns are the domestic and political intrigues of Constantinople which resulted in Belisarius' repeated dismissal and recall from service.

In addition to the epic story, “Count Belisarius” features villains as interesting, if less subtle than Livia in “I, Claudius”. Robert Graves seems to have relied in part on Procopius' “Secret History” (a sort of scandal sheet account of Justinian's reign). Justinian is portrayed as having few virtues and his vices of jealousy and envy are a constant source of misfortune to Belisarius. The Empress Theodora consistently plots to undermine the loyal and faithful Belisarius. Belisarius has the twin burdens of having to fight against both the Empire's external enemies as well as face the constant jealousies and insecurities of the Imperial couple.

The central difference between the protagonists in “I, Claudius” and “Count Belisarius” is that Claudius succeeds because his flaws are obvious and he appears to be a threat to no-one. Belisarius is however, for all intents and purpose, almost perfect. The story of Belisarius must therefore be told by a household slave as a third party. Consequently unlike the first person 'warts and all' telling of “I Claudius”, it is difficult to say whether the reader ever reaches the core of Belisarius as a character. “Count Belisarius” is almost a hagiography in its account of Belisarius triumphs. Despite suffering injustices and ingratitudes, Belisarius retains his nobility and virtue. However, in comparison to Claudius, Belisarius comes across as a much duller character. If Belisarius does have doubts about his master Justinian, he refuses to voice them or act upon them.

Robert Graves justified his portrayal of Belisarius and responded to criticism by attacking the cynicism of twentieth century literary taste for questioning the realism of the character. In Graves' defence, the source material for that period is limited but does nonetheless seem to indicate that Belisarius was a career soldier with few ambitions beyond doing his duty and carrying out the increasingly difficult task of reconquering Gothic Italy with the limited forces that were sent to him. Graves' meticulous attention to detail successfully recreates the Byzantine world and the key events of Justinian's reign and Belisarius' career. Anyone fascinated by the later Roman Empire should read this book.