h o l y w a r r i o r s theology and business went hand in hand.
Columbus wasn’t alone in his obsession with defeating Islam and reinstating Christian control of the Holy Land. As Cliff argues in his lively recreation of the life of Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese navigator was just as animated by the subject. He had stronger reason, as his travels into the Indian Ocean put him in direct contact with the Muslim world and, as often as not, in direct conflict with Muslim traders and rulers. Cliff does not dwell, as he might have, on the symmetry between da Gama’s religious fanaticism and contemporary Muslim fundamentalism. He lets the whiff of Christian fanaticism drift in and out of his account without really trying to square the two strains of monotheistic intolerance that have gnawed at each other ever since. By contrast, Delaney is more willing to present Columbus’s story as what she calls a parable for our times, warning against the evils that apocalyptic visions on both sides of the contemporary
Christian–Muslim divide can still prompt.
Is their religious zeal grounds for removing these two men from their pedestals? Even if it is, this is unlikely to happen.Textbooks will continue, in however nuanced a way, to celebrate what both did – almost despite what they did – and disregard the motives that drove them to do it. Few curricula want to stress that it was not a thirst for knowledge, nor even a desire to engage in honourable trade, that drove these men to seek treasure. Even attributing their actions to pure greed might go down better than pointing out how passionately they hoped for a Christian reconquest of the Middle East and the eradication of all Muslims and Jews in a final apocalypse.
Delaney, by never quite allowing Columbus to dictate his own story, is able to walk the fine line between understanding her subject and recognising the dangers built into his desire to redeem the Christian world. Cliff does less well in keeping his distance. The more skilful writer, he charms the readers with lively dialogue, vivid details, and overwrought descriptions, somewhat undermining his exposure of da Gama’s implacability as a crusader. One could ask why an author would choose to write yet another biography of someone whose myth Sanjay Subrahmanyam so brilliantly dismantled fifteen years ago in The Career and Legend of Vasco da Gama, but it is the fate of popular-history writers to resurrect heroes.
Columbus survived 1992, and Delaney’s doubts about the probity of his motivations are unlikely to carry him out of the pantheon. He is too securely part of the rise of the West narrative, especially now that some think the West deserves to be remythologised. So the chances are good that he will still be on his pedestal staring down Broadway in 2092 when the next centennial arrives and our descendants will have to go through this whole cycle again. To order these books, see the Literary Review bookshop on page 47
The Byzantine Empire has never had a good press, but few things in its long history have given rise to more controversy than its relations with the crusades. The First Crusade is an epic story, on a par with the tale of Xenophon and the ten thousand. A volunteer army, inspired by a heady mix of greed and piety, marched over 2,000 miles from their homes, fighting their way through eastern Europe and Asia Minor to conquer much of Syria and Palestine. The Byzantine Empire has generally been viewed as a bystander at these extraordinary events, by turns irrelevant and obstructive, but always willing to take the benefit of other people’s heroism. The central figure in the Greek side of the story was Alexios Komnenos, the soldier-emperor who seized power in 1081 and reigned until 1118. ‘I should perhaps compare the emperor Alexius’, wrote Gibbon, ‘to the jackal, who is said to follow the steps, and to devour the leavings, of the lion.’
Hellenophile historians have struggled against this relentlessly negative vision. The French historian Ferdinand Chalandon wrote the first and last serious monograph on the reign of Alexios in 1900. Sir Steven Runciman, whose monumental hisj on at h a n s ump t i on
The Alexiad Revisited The First Crusade: The Call from the East
By Peter Frankopan (The Bodley Head 262pp £20)
tory of the crusades is still the most widely read work on the subject in English, put forward an alternative view of Byzantium as the most civilised society of the medieval world, the only political entity capable of defending Europe against the Islamic hordes, which uncouth and grasping crusaders conspired to destroy. But even Runciman, with his elegant patrician cadences and profound understanding of the medieval Greek world, barely shifted perceptions.
The problem lies mainly in the sources. The only major Greek chronicle of the period is the Alexiad of Anna Komnena, the emperor’s daughter. Alexios’s successors saw to it that no one else’s account was preserved. Yet Anna’s work is exceptionally difficult to use as evidence. Subtle, prolix, flowery and biased, its main objective was to protect and enhance her father’s reputation. Anna followed events from the distant and cloistered world of the Blachernae palace in Constantinople, and she wrote the work in old age, long afterwards. Her chronology was uncertain and sometimes deliberately manipulated. Incidents are recounted at the wrong point, in the wrong order, and sometimes at several different stages in the story in slightly different terms. The Alexiad is often conveniently tendentious and selective. It is tempting to turn to the crude simplicities of the Latin chronicles. They were written closer to the events, often by eyewitnesses, and have a dramatic immediacy unequalled among the narrative sources of the Middle Ages. But their bias is just as strong the other way.Their authors had no sympathy with the culture of Byzantium and no interest in its complex and unstable polity. They knew nothing of what was going on in Constantinople while the crusaders struggled against the elements
Literary Review | m a y 2 0 1 2 6 h o l y w a r r i o r s r l f a d and the Turks hundreds of miles away. To these authors, Alexios was the man who sent the crusaders to the verge of starvation and defeat, while he stayed behind in the comfort of his capital. The myth of Byzantine treachery had taken root, and it would ultimately bear fruit in the sack of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade in 1204.
In The First Crusade, Peter Frankopan makes the most determined attempt yet to correct these ancient misconceptions. Frankopan argues that Alexios was the real author of the First Crusade. It was at his initiative that Urban II delivered his famous call to arms at the Council of Clermont in 1095. It was he who planned the movement of tens of thousands of western European knights across Europe, and he who supplied them as they camped outside his capital and marched south. Frankopan has written a remarkable book that makes as strong a case as the incomplete and episodic evidence permits.
Critical to the argument is Frankopan’s revision of the traditional chronology of Byzantium’s wars against the Seljuk Turks in the last three decades of the eleventh century. The Byzantine state depended for its defence on the resources of Asia Minor, from which a large proportion of its tax revenues, military manpower and food supplies had always been drawn. The conventional view is that the empire lost control of Asia Minor in the immediate aftermath of the great battle of Manzikert in 1071, ten years before the putsch that brought Alexios to power. This view was based in part on the Alexiad. Anna Komnena was naturally keen to distance her father from the loss of Byzantium’s last Asian provinces. Historians, believing that the loss of the Asiatic provinces had happened a quarter of a century before the launching of the First Crusade, concluded that the stories of Turkish atrocities and persecutions that circulated in the West in 1095 were exaggerated, and that Alexios had no particular need of western help at that moment. Frankopan’s revised chronology dismisses the battle of Manzikert as a temporary setback, and reassigns the loss of effective control over Asia Minor to the 1090s. This makes better sense of the fragments of evidence that suggest that the appeal to the chivalry of the West originated in a desperate attempt by Alexios to sustain his tottering empire.
As so often with revisionist history, the truth probably lies somewhere between the old version and the new. The battle of Manzikert may not have been the cataclysmic event it was once thought to be, but it was clearly a serious setback that allowed powerful Turkish warlords to establish themselves as an intermediate level of government in Asia Minor. The indigenous population made the best deal they could with them, and became largely indifferent to the authority of the emperor. Greek sources called this rebellion, but conquest might be a better word. When Alexios came to power, he found it necessary to make deals with the newcomers in much the same way as the Western Roman Empire had done with the Germanic invaders of Europe in the fourth and fifth centuries. He bought their nominal allegiance with status and money. They fought the empire’s battles but largely in their own interest. Alexios followed much the same policy with the invaders of Byzantium’s European provinces. These deals shielded the eastern empire from reality for a while, but they always broke down sooner or later. This seems to be what happened in the 1090s. Alexios managed to hold on to the European provinces in a series of skilful campaigns. But Anatolia and the rich cities and fertile valleys of coastal Asia Minor were lost, until the victories of the crusaders made it possible to recover them, at least for a time.
In a sense Gibbon was right. The Greeks had devoured the leavings of the lion. But in a more profound sense, he was not. For Alexios had invited the crusaders, had handled their leaders with considerable diplomatic skill, and had organised the logistics of the campaign in a way that had made their triumph possible. It was not his fault that they declined to recognise his contribution. In the long run it hardly mattered, for the Greek empire was doomed anyway, the victim of the perennial conflict between the sedentary kingdoms of the Middle Ages and the descendants of the nomadic tribes of central Asia. At least it proved to have more durable foundations than the improvised kingdoms of the crusaders. Its days may have been numbered, but it outlasted them by more than two centuries. To order this book for £16, see the Literary Review bookshop on page 47
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