The Immediate Cause of the First Crusade

In 1095, representatives of the Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenus attended the Council of Piacenza. They came to ask for the Pope’s aid in gathering a substantial body of soldiers to be hired, in mercenary fashion, to fight for the Byzantines in sweeping away the Turks who had steadily encroached on Byzantine land. Invited to speak before the council, they made an impassioned plea that placed the fate of the suffering Church in the Holy Land in the hands of such soldiers. This appeal proved too successful. Instead of recruiting hardy western soldiers to bolster the Empire’s Anatolian frontier, they had unleashed a Crusade in which throngs of troublemakers journeyed into the Levant, carving out states of their own, often in direct opposition to Byzantine interests.

The decades previous to this had been tumultuous ones for the Byzantines and for the Middle East as a whole. The Seljuk Turks, newcomers to the Muslim world who still maintained a semi-nomadic lifestyle, had begun expanding aggressively in the northwest corner of the Islamic sphere of control. As they pressed the Byzantine frontier, they found the pastures of Anatolia to be a perfect base for future operations.

The Emperor Romanus attempted to repulse the Turks in 1071, and brought a large army into Anatolia. The resulting Battle of Manzikert was an unqualified disaster for the Byzantines. In part, the Emperor’s failure is due to the fact that he divided his forces before the battle, an expedient that generally succeeds only when the force using it enjoys superior mobility. In part, however, Romanus’ defeat was the result of a double treachery: his Turkic mercenaries defected to the side of their ethnic cousins, while his Norman mercenaries stayed out of the battle entirely. The Byzantine army was definitively routed, and the Emperor was taken prisoner.

The capture of the Emperor sparked a new wave of usurpations and palace intrigue that gripped Byzantine attention for seven years. Several limited campaigns were fought by claimants to the throne, and the Turks were able to profit from this state of affairs to expand their dominance in Anatolia. In 1078, Alexius Comnenus took the throne and began a forty-year reign. He had numerous crises with which to contend, economic as well as military, but he went about his tasks in a systematic fashion. He shored up his treasury while dealing with the more immediate military threat – that of the Normans in connection with the Empire’s southern Italian holdings – and then turned his attention to the Turks when he considered his position more secure.

In 1085, Alexius was able to devote more of his energy to dealing with the Turks. He was not, however, able to do so through a decisive feat of arms. In part, periodic crises demanded his attention, but more chronically, he did not have a military that was strong enough to scatter the Turks en masse. And so, he responded to the threat in time-honored Byzantine fashion, by playing off one faction against another. During the ensuing decade, this policy enjoyed considerable success. By 1095, Turkish chieftains viewed each other with suspicion, and with a more powerful army, the Byzantines might have hoped to drive them from Anatolia.

The decision to turn to the West for aid was not one to be taken lightly. The Eleventh Century was one in which tensions between East and West had reached their highest point to date. In 1054, the Schism over the final form of the Nicene Creed led to mutual bans of excommunication between the Pope and the eastern Patriarchs. While the theological dispute remained unresolved, the ardor of the conflict cooled, and both sides were capable of forging alliances with the opposite camps. Still, Byzantine experience in the 1070’s taught them not to trust western warriors fully, most especially the Normans.

Perhaps Alexius hoped that if the Pope himself were to instigate the process of summoning mercenaries, they might prove more trustworthy. Certainly, he expected his appeal to gather a cohesive military force able to help the Byzantines to sweep the Turks out of the Empire altogether. As it happened, the leading voices of the Western Church drew very different conclusions. Christians in the Holy Land were suffering, they felt, and the Church needed to act to bring them aid. Some added that the failures of Byzantium meant that the Eastern Empire could no longer be the chief protector of Christendom in the face of the infidel; they posed the question of whether Western Europe could fill that void.

The result was the chaotic movement that became the Crusades. Popular support created ill-organized efforts long before any kings became involved. Ironically, the Normans whom the Byzantine Emperor so distrusted played a decisive role in the First Crusade. Dismayed by what he saw when the army first appeared in Byzantine territory, Alexius also recognized that turning them back would be more dangerous than letting them through, and so he endeavored to get them out of Imperial lands and into contested territory as soon as possible.

It was doubtless a surprise to Emperor Alexius that this army would meet the level of success that it did. In the long run, though, it is questionable whether the Crusaders bought the Byzantines any time. While the creation of Crusader States along the Levantine coast changed the focus of military conflict for two centuries, those same states eroded Byzantine interests repeatedly in that time. In 1209, the Fourth Crusade would go so far as to sack Constantinople itself. Moreover, the Crusades as a whole coalesced Muslim opinion and gathered Muslim forces under powerful leaders like Nur ad-Din, Saladin and Bayburs in ways that nothing else had done.

The Byzantines would survive in truncated form until the Ottoman seizure of Constantinople in 1453; advances in siege artillery had as much to do with this event as anything else. It is therefore open to question whether the Crusades offered the Byzantines any help at all. None of this could be foreseen in 1095. The Byzantine envoys came to Piacenza with a very simple goal in mind. In characteristic Byzantine fashion, they were too clever in making their case, and the enterprise transformed itself in ways they could not have imagined.


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