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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