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Impearls: Crusades II - Eastern Empire vis-a-vis the West

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Earthdate 2003-11-29

Crusades II – Eastern Empire vis-a-vis the West

Renowned scholar J. B. Bury planned the entire (originally) 8-volume series of The Cambridge Medieval History, and among other things wrote the Introduction to Volume IV of the series, on The Eastern Roman Empire (that great medieval empire known to historians today as the Byzantine Empire but, as Bury says, more properly would be called simply the Roman Empire).  The subject of the Crusades, the Middle Ages, and the relationship between the Eastern Empire and western Europeans of the time having been previously raised, it's worth considering some of Bury's words from his Introduction to Volume IV.  With regard to an overall assessment of the Eastern Empire vis-a-vis the medieval West, Bury wrote: 1

As a civilised state, we may say that the Eastern Empire performed three principal functions.  As in its early years the Roman Empire laid the foundations of civilisation in the West and educated Celtic and German peoples, so in its later period it educated the Slavs of eastern Europe.  Russia, Bulgaria, and Serbia owed it everything and bore its stamp.  Secondly, it exercised a silent but constant and considerable influence on western Europe by sending its own manufactures and the products of the East to Italy, France, and Germany.  Many examples of its embroidered textile fabrics and its jewellery have been preserved in the West.  In the third place, it guarded safely the heritage of classical Greek literature which has had on the modern world a penetrating influence difficult to estimate.  That we owe our possession of the masterpieces of Hellenic thought and imagination to the Byzantines everyone knows, but everyone does not remember that those books would not have travelled to Italy in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, because they would not have existed, if the Greek classics had not been read habitually by the educated subjects of the Eastern Empire and therefore continued to be copied. 2

Here we touch on a most fundamental contrast between the Eastern Empire and the western European states of the Middle Ages.  The well-to-do classes in the West were as a rule illiterate, with the exception of ecclesiastics; among the well-to-do classes in the Byzantine world education was the rule, and education meant not merely reading, writing, and arithmetic, but the study of ancient Greek grammar and the reading of classical authors.  The old traditions of Greek education had never died out.  In court circles at Constantinople everyone who was not an utter parvenu would recognise and understand a quotation from Homer.  In consequence of this difference, the intellectual standard in the West where book-learning was reserved for a particular class, and in the East where every boy and girl whose parents could afford to pay was educated, were entirely different.  The advantages of science and training and system were understood in Byzantine society.

The appreciation of method and system which the Byzantines inherited both from the Greeks and from the Romans is conspicuously shewn in their military establishment and their conduct of war.  Here their intellectuality stands out in vivid contrast with the rude dullness displayed in the modes of warfare practised in the West.  Tactics were carefully studied, and the treatises on war which the officers used were kept up to date.  The tacticians apprehended that it was stupid to employ uniform methods in campaigns against different foes.  They observed carefully the military habits of the various people with whom they had to fight — Saracens, Lombards, Franks, Slavs, Hungarians — and thought out different rules for dealing with each.  The soldiers were most carefully and efficiently drilled.  They understood organisation and the importance of not leaving details to chance, of not neglecting small points in equipment.  Their armies were accompanied by ambulances and surgeons.  Contrast the feudal armies of the West, ill-disciplined, with no organisation, under leaders who had not the most rudimentary idea of tactics, who put their faith in sheer strength and courage, and attacked all antagonists in exactly the same way.  More formidable the Western knights might be than Slavs or Magyars, but in the eyes of a Byzantine officer they were equally rude barbarians who had not yet learned that war is an art which requires intelligence as well as valour.  In the period in which the Empire was strong, before it lost the provinces which provided its best recruits, its army was beyond comparison the best fighting machine in Europe.  When a Byzantine army was defeated, it was always the incompetence of the general or some indiscretion on his part, never inefficiency or cowardice of the troops, that was to blame.  The great disaster of Manzikert (1071), from which perhaps the decline of the Eastern Empire may be dated, was caused by the imbecility of the brave Emperor who was in command.  A distinguished student of the art of war has observed that Gibbon's dictum, “the vices of Byzantine armies were inherent, their victories accidental,” is precisely the reverse of the truth.  He is perfectly right.

Concerning the specific subject of the Crusades, as Bury put it, “The Crusades were, for the Eastern Empire, simply a series of barbarian invasions of a particularly embarrassing kind […].”

And it's worth remembering the origins of Venice, which played such a critical role in the Crusades and, especially, in the Fourth Crusade wherein the “New Rome” of Constantinople was conquered (1206) by the armed forces of the West.  Bury notes:

The character of Venice and her career were decided by the circumstance that she was subject to the Eastern Emperors before she became independent.  She was extra-Italian throughout the Middle Ages; she never belonged to the Carolingian Kingdom of Italy.  And after she had slipped into independence almost without knowing it — there never was a violent breaking away from her allegiance to the sovrans of Constantinople — she moved still in the orbit of the Empire; and it was on the ruins of the Empire, dismembered by the criminal enterprise of her Duke Dandolo, that she reached the summit of her power as mistress in the Aegean and in Greece.  She was the meeting-place of two civilisations, but it was eastern not western Europe that controlled her history and lured her ambitions.  Her citizens spoke a Latin tongue and in spiritual matters acknowledged the supremacy of the elder Rome, but the influence from new Rome had penetrated deep, and their great Byzantine basilica is a visible reminder of their long political connexion with the Eastern Empire.


1 J. B. Bury (M.A., F.B.A.), “Introduction” to Volume IV: The Eastern Roman Empire, edited by J. R. Tanner, C. W. Previté-Orton, and Z. N. Brooke, The Cambridge Medieval History, planned by J. B. Bury, Cambridge at the University Press, London, 1923; pp. x-xi, xiv.

2 A superb example of such preservation can be seen in the Archimedes palimpsest, reported on in Impearls' article here.  Notice the implication: 10th century Constantinopolitans were reading, and making copies of, The Method of Archimedes.

UPDATE:  2003-12-03 19:50 UT:  A supplemental article Crusades III – the End of the Crusades, concerning reasons why the Crusades came to a close, has been posted.

UPDATE:  2003-12-13 12:00 UT:  Geitner Simmons, writing in his blog Regions of Mind, has replied to Donald Sensing's and my Crusader articles with a posting entitled “The first crusader,” concerning crusades undertaken by the Eastern Empire itself.  I've responded to his piece with a follow-up article Crusades IV – the Byzantine Crusades.

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