Innumerable as the Starrs of Night,
Or Starrs of Morning,
Dew-drops, which the Sun
on every leaf and every flouer
Beauty is truth, truth beauty,
— that is all
Ye know on earth, and all
ye need to know.
E = M
Energy is eternal delight.
Impearls: Crusades IV - The Byzantine Crusades
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Geitner Simmons, writing in his blog Regions of Mind, has followed-up on Donald Sensing's and my earlier Crusader articles (after linking to them) with a piece called “The first crusader.” Geitner points out that the crusades could properly be said to commence early in the 7th century, with the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius and the Persian invasion of the empire — and thus began neither with the Spanish Reconquista nor the Western numbered Crusades starting in the late 11th cent. This is quite a reasonable point of view historically, and the story Simmons refers to is indeed terrific: total victory over the Persians (and Avars) by Emperor Heraclius after the former had initially conquered almost all the Roman Empire's Asian and African territories, at the same time that the barbarian nomadic Avars occupied and threatened most of Byzantium's remaining European possessions.
The book review that Geitner quotes from, however, is unfortunately quite unsatisfactory (no fault of Simmons, he pointed to what he had) in communicating the enormous scale of Heraclius' astonishing achievement, which without hyperbole can be said to rival the exploits of Alexander. Here's what historians Donald MacGillivray Nicol and John L. Teall, writing in Encyclopædia Britannica (we'll give folks a break from The Cambridge Medieval History), had to say in this regard: 1
Heraclius accomplished all this not only by superb generalship, but with also a great dash of personal valor. As historian Enno Franzius writes in his biography of Heraclius in Britannica: 2
Heraclius fought his “crusade” very differently from the sort of general mayhem and massacre which later western European-organized crusades acquired a reputation (not entirely warranted) for. As Franzius wrote:
Heraclius' more humane treatment of helpless prisoners and captured cities may reflect yet more of the supreme qualitative chasm in education and culture separating the medieval East Romans from the western European states and their knights (as Impearls' earlier piece Crusades II attests). In this regard, it's worth looking at application of the death penalty in medieval Byzantium, which is quite at variance from ordinary perceptions of the brutality of the Middle Ages. J. B. Bury writes: 3
Revisit that last bit again: in a cosmopolitan, sophisticated state whose capital city incorporated hundreds of thousands of residents — empire as a whole, millions — over a reign (Emperor John II Comnenus) of 25 years, there were no executions. However one feels about applicability of capital punishment in the present day, such a record cannot but convey a certain culturally-based merciful attitude by medieval Byzantium towards offenders that ought to give us pause today. Are we really so sure, for example, that locking up criminals for years or decades of time — or executing them — is more humane than just cutting off a nose? If deterring crime is the goal, loss of a nose (with more to follow if one persists in one's crimes) might be a greater deterrent for many a potential criminal (as well as pragmatically solving the problem of “community notification”) than vague prospects of prison. While not seriously entertaining such punishments for the present day, I do emphasize that our own conventions of what's humane and what's not aren't unchallengeable. In my view, East Rome has a decent claim to having been, in reality, basically a moral as well as cultured civilization, and very far indeed from what some might propose as the necessary character of such a Christian theocracy: a kind of Christian Taliban — that's manifestly not medieval Byzantium.
One other thing: we've focused here (as does Geitner) on the crusade of Heraclius in the early 7th century, and what that tells us about the medieval Byzantine world — however, there's plenty else in the history of the East Roman state warranting the appellation of “crusade.”
After the Muslim irruption from Arabia, commencing near the end of Heraclius' life, for many decades the Byzantines were forced into a struggle merely to survive; a large part of their territory was stripped from them, and central Anatolia became the residual core of the empire.
Throughout the 10th and much of the 11th centuries, however, East Rome rebounded to the extent of undertaking quite a Reconquista of her own, recovering from Muslim rule the pirate-nest islands of Crete and Cyprus, most of eastern and southeastern Anatolia, the important city of Antioch in Syria, even threatening Jerusalem — all this, though, is a tale for another day.
It was only after the empire's defeat and even more disastrous aftermath of the epochal battle of Manzikert in 1071 (caused, as Bury notes, by the execrable judgment of the emperor in command) that the Byzantines were driven to the desperate and dangerous expedient of appealing to the West for aid.
The rest, as they say, is history.
1 Donald MacGillivray Nicol (Koraës Professor Emeritus of Byzantine and Modern Greek History, Language, and Literature, King's College, University of London) and John L. Teall (Professor of History, Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Massachusetts), “The History of the Byzantine Empire: The Heraclians and the Challenge of Islam,” Encyclopædia Britannica, Britannica CD 1997, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.
2 Enno Franzius (author of History of the Byzantine Empire), “Heraclius,” Op. cit.
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; p. xiii.
UPDATE: 2005-07-29 10:00 UT: An article The Arab Admiralty – and an Arab naval view of the Crusades by Ibn Khaldûn has been posted. See also the associated piece Ibn Khaldûn – Master Historian of the Arabs.
UPDATE: 2003-12-14 12:30 UT: Geitner Simmons responded to Impearls' article above with a link and some very kind words: “What worthwhile examinations of history Michael McNeil provides at Impearls. […] Now a new post at Impearls delves deep into the story of Heraclius' “First Crusade,” yielding many great historical nuggets. […] The post shows the fine work that the history-blog universe, at its best, is capable of.”
Eric Scheie also commented in an e-mail: “That is a wonderfully written, thoughtful, well-researched piece.”
UPDATE: 2003-12-15 19:20 UT: Eric Scheie linked to this article from his blog Classical Values, calling it “a real gem!” and some other praise that I blush to repeat except say that I'm not “a genuine scholar of the Byzantine period” — or of much else actually — just a guy who's read some books, and remembered oh-too-tiny a bit of what I've read. (Keeping a big, fat tome or two in the bathroom does wonders, I find: a page or couple at a sitting out of a history book eventually covers a lot of temporal-spatial territory!) I do appreciate the compliments, though, and they make nice decoration for these updates! (In response to Eric's question, I do have something to post on that, but I'm not quite ready to do so — have to look up some stuff then think about it — and in the meantime the link his reader dropped off seems to provide more than a good start, much of that material I'll also have to absorb, so let's keep the topic in mind as an article idea for the future.)
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