Crusaders against Christians

Crusaders against Christians

Did you know that the Crusades against Islam actually affected also the Eastern Roman Empire? The crusaders in their quest for political power and economic supremacy did not always distinguish between muslims and christians. The results of their actions were evident in their behaviour against the emperor of Byzantium and his subjects.

Alexius, the first emperor of the dynasty, was in power when the first Crusade took place. In the autumn of 1096, when the Crusaders started gathering outside the walls of Constantinople, the empire was already in a much healthier state than 5-6 years ago. It seems that the empire already hit bottom in 1090/91. At the time, the Patriarch of Antioch claimed that “the frontiers of the Byzantine empire had been reduced in the East to the Acropolis of Byzantium and in the West to the Golden Gate”; this way, suggesting that the empire was limited to Constantinople alone.

Alexius had to thank a close-knit network of relatives for his survival during the difficult first years of his reign. The family of Comnenoi, to which he belonged, may have seen a series of political failures; however, these did not result in the defeat of the emperor. Even after Alexius rose to the throne the internal condition of the empire continued to deteriorate and a general discontent became widespread. In order to master this discontent he produced an unjust regime. It was observed that he ruled not as a trustee for his people but as the head of an aristocratic family. His chief duty was to his family and not to his people.

Alexius’s priority was probably to protect the empire from the external danger. During that time, Anatolia was lost to the Turks, the northern Balkans were in the hands of the Petcheneks and other local leaders. This is when Robert Guiscard, the Norman conqueror of southern Italy, was preparing to invade the Illyrian provinces of the Byzantine empire. The first and foremost concern of Alexius were, indeed, the Normans, mainly because they presented a threat to the imperial office, since they claimed to support the rights of the previous emperor. Alexius thought that a victory against Guiscard would, in fact, unite the Byzantine society behind the current emperor and it would have been easier for him to win victories also against the Petcheneks and the Turks.

A series of encounters were not enough to decide for the war. At least, though, by 1083 Alexius had prevented the Normans from penetrating the plains of Macedonia and Thessaly in northern Greece, the richest provinces of the empire. When in 1084 Guiscard was ready to invade the empire once more, the Byzantines used the Venetians to try to prevent his crossing over to Albania.
Nevertheless, the Normans managed to prevail in a series of sea battles and gained control of the sea. Only luck could save the Byzantines. In fact, in 1085 Guiscard died and the Normans evacuated the Byzantine soil. After this war the strategy of Alexius seemed to be justified, and his prestige was immeasurably increased.

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Economic historian and numismatic consultant

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